Video: Nobel prize surprise

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    >>> begins now.

    >>> good evening. the president was awakened at 6:00 a.m . and told he had just won the nobel peace prize . it was a stunner. it came out of nowhere. it is not the kind of thing he had applied for, nor did he know he was nominated. one white house staffer said he had to make sure this wasn't april 1st . a writer for "time" magazine calls it the last thing the president needs. it happened so fast and was so unexpected the white house had to figure out what to say. it's also one of the last remaining towering honors on earth. we start off our coverage tonight with our chief foreign affairs correspondent andrea mitchell in washington. a lot to say tonight, andrea.

    >> reporter: indeed there is, brian. it was the kind of 6:00 a.m . wake-up call that surprised everyone, including the president of the united states . even barack obama 's most ardent admirers did not expect him to become a nobel laureate so soon after becoming president. you don't have to know norwegian to understand the gasps of surprise in oslo when the prize was awarded to barack obama .

    >> barack obama .

    >> reporter: the five-member nobel committee cited the president's efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and his vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. but to many the real message seemed to be europe likes the fact that america has a new leader and he is not george w. bush .

    >> obama has as president created a new international climate.

    >> reporter: six hours later in the oval office the president and his chief of staff were still trying to find the right note of humility for the occasion.

    >> i do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments, but rather as an affirmation of american leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations.

    >> reporter: the president said he would accept the prize as a call to action but didn't deserve to be in the company of transformative past winners or even a legendary peacemaker like mahatma gandhi never won the prize. past recipients include two former sitting presidents, theodore roos welt and woodrow wilson , iconic figures like nelson mandela and mother theresa , and more controversial choices. yasser arafat , menachem begin , jimmy carter and henry kissinger . all chosen for their life's work. not nominated, as president obama was, 12 days after taking office. on msnbc's " morning joe " the reaction was more shock than awe.

    >> can you ever think of a nobel peace prize winner that has won this award for doing less than this president?

    >> reporter: people were surprised from cairo to the president's hometown of chicago.

    >> i think it would have -- it's too soon to award him a nobel prize . we could have waited a year or two.

    >> what? i was like, what for?

    >> surprised but okay, yeah, i could see that.

    >> reporter: in fact, president obama beat out 204 other nominees, a record number. congratulations poured in from past winners.

    >> it's an honor for him, first and foremost, of course, but it's an honor for our country. i think it's extremely well deserved.

    >> reporter: supporters point to the president's policy of diplomatic engagement with iran, north korea , and cuba.

    >> we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

    >> reporter: and his outreach to the muslim world . but his middle east diplomacy is stalled, and he is still fighting two wars.

    >> i think the president has commitment, he has priority, but he's facing galactic problems.

    >> reporter: the "new yorker's" george packer wrote on his blog, "not even a rookie of the year is ready to be elected to the hall of fame ." the white house has announced the president will donate the $1.4 million accompanying this prize to charity. and he will travel to oslo to accept it in december. brian?

    >> all right. andrea mitchell starting us off in our newsroom in washington on this stunner of a day. andrea, thanks. which all brings us to

updated 10/13/2009 12:20:20 PM ET 2009-10-13T16:20:20

Members of the Norwegian committee that gave Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize are strongly defending their choice against a storm of criticism that the award was premature and a potential liability for the U.S. president.

Asked to comment on the uproar following Friday's announcement , four members of the five-seat panel told The Associated Press that they had expected the decision to generate both surprise and criticism.

Three of them rejected the notion that Obama hadn't accomplished anything to deserve the award, while the fourth declined to answer that question. A fifth member didn't answer calls seeking comment.

"We simply disagree that he has done nothing," committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland told the AP on Tuesday. "He got the prize for what he has done."

Jagland singled out Obama's efforts to heal the divide between the West and the Muslim world and scale down a Bush-era proposal for an anti-missile shield in Europe.

"All these things have contributed to — I wouldn't say a safer world — but a world with less tension," Jagland said by phone from the French city of Strasbourg, where he was attending meetings in his other role as secretary-general of the Council of Europe.

'Who has done more?'
He said most world leaders were positive about the award and that most of the criticism was coming from the media and from Obama's political rivals.

"I take note of it. My response is only the judgment of the committee, which was unanimous," he said, adding that the award to Obama followed the guidelines set forth by Alfred Nobel, the Swedish industrialist and inventor of dynamite, who established the Nobel Prizes in his 1895 will.

"Alfred Nobel wrote that the prize should go to the person who has contributed most to the development of peace in the previous year," Jagland said. "Who has done more for that than Barack Obama?"

Aagot Valle, a left-wing Norwegian politician who joined the Nobel panel this year, also dismissed suggestions that the decision to award Obama was without merit.

"Don't you think that comments like that patronize Obama? Where do these people come from?" Valle said by phone from the western coastal city of Bergen. "Well, of course, all arguments have to be considered seriously. I'm not afraid of a debate on the peace prize decision. That's fine."

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In Friday's announcement, the committee said giving Obama the peace prize could be seen as an early vote of confidence intended to build global support for the policies of his young administration.

The left-leaning committee whose members are appointed by the Norwegian Parliament lauded the change in global mood wrought by Obama's calls for peace and cooperation, and praised his pledges to reduce the world stock of nuclear arms, ease U.S. conflicts with Muslim nations and strengthen the U.S. role in combating climate change.

However, the decision stunned even the most seasoned Nobel watchers. They hadn't expected Obama, who took office barely two weeks before the Feb. 1 nomination deadline, to be seriously considered until at least next year.

GOP derision
The award drew heated derision from Obama's political opponents in the Republican party, and was even questioned by some members of Obama's own Democratic party, who wondered what the president had done to merit the $1.4 million honor.

Michael S. Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said naming Obama showed "how meaningless a once honorable and respected award has become."

In a fundraising letter, Steele wrote that "the Democrats and their international leftist allies want America made subservient to the agenda of global redistribution and control. And truly patriotic Americans like you and our Republican Party are the only thing standing in their way."

Columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times that Obama "has not done anything yet on the scale that would normally merit such an award."

Even in Europe, where Obama is hugely popular, many editorials and pundits questioned what he had done to deserve the award.

"Scrap the Nobel Peace Prize," foreign affairs commentator Bronwen Maddox wrote in The Times of London. "It's an embarrassment and even an impediment to peace. President Obama, in letting the committee award it to him, has made himself look vain, a fool and dangerously lost in his own mystique."

Yet Obama was humble in acknowledging the prize.

"Let me be clear: I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments, but rather as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations," Obama said Friday in the White House Rose Garden. "To be honest, I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who've been honored by this prize."

Nobel Committee member Inger-Marie Ytterhorn noted that the president didn't greet the news with joy.

"I looked at his face when he was on TV and confirmed that he would receive the prize and would come to Norway, and he didn't look particularly happy," she told AP.

Some of the most celebrated peace prize laureates include Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela. The award has occasionally honored more controversial figures, like the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat or former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Sometimes it raises the profile of peace workers or activists, such as Rigoberta Menchu of Guatemala in 1992 or Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai in 2004.

"Whenever we award the peace prize, there is normally a big debate about it," said Ytterhorn, a nine-year veteran of the award committee.

'It might hamper him'
Asked whether there was a risk that the prize could backfire on Obama by raising expectations even higher and give ammunition to his critics, Ytterhorn said "it might hamper him," because it could distract from domestic issues such as health care reform.

Jagland said he didn't think the Nobel Peace Prize would hurt Obama domestically but added the committee did not take U.S. politics into consideration when making their decision.

"I'm not so familiar with American politics, and I don't want to interfere with it, because this is a totally independent committee," he said. "We should not look at internal politics."

Kaci Kullman Five, a former Conservative Party parliamentarian and longtime Nobel committee member, said "we all expected that there would be a discussion" about awarding Obama. She declined further comment, deferring to the Nobel Peace Prize tradition of only having the committee chairman discuss prize selections publicly.

Valle, who left her seat in Parliament last week because of her Nobel panel appointment, said the criticism shouldn't overshadow important issues raised by the prize.

"Of course I expected disagreement and debate on the prize, on giving him the prize," she said. "But what I want now is that we seriously raise a discussion regarding nuclear disarmament."

More on: Nobel Peace Prize | Barack Obama

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