Obama's Fellow Laureate Wiesel: 'I Confess Surprise'

President Obama has won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize for his international diplomacy efforts. Steven Inskeep talks with the 1986 winner of the prize, Elie Wiesel, about his new fellow laureate. Wiesel says he was surprised by the Norwegian Nobel Committee's decision.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The early morning wake-up that President Obama received this morning is an experience that scores of others have shared over the years. The president got a call saying he had won the Nobel Prize for Peace. Back in 1986 that call went to Elie Wiesel. He is a Holocaust survivor, the author of many books about it, and spent a lifetime speaking up for the oppressed. And he's on the phone this morning.

Mr. Wiesel, welcome to the program.

Mr. ELIE WIESEL (Nobel Peace Prize Winner): Thank you.

INSKEEP: What was your first response to the news about President Obama?

Mr. WIESEL: I confess surprise. I think the Nobel committee loves to surprise people. I myself was surprised, because I didn't expect it. I think no one has.

INSKEEP: Well, having said that you were surprised, and when you have a moment to think about it, do you think he deserves it?

Mr. WIESEL: I'll tell you. First of all, it's strange for me to think of him now as my fellow Nobel laureate.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WIESEL: After all, he's the president of the United States. But at the same time, seriously, he made history by allowing the American people to correct its own old racial injustices. After all, he's the first black person to have been elected to that high office, and in doing so he did bring hope and dignity to the fact, to the very position. And therefore I think he gave something to the Nobel Prize.

INSKEEP: He added to the Nobel Prize rather than the other way around.

Mr. WIESEL: It goes both ways. But in this case, really, for the president of the United States, a sitting president, who is nine months in office, it's true that he tries and tries - I'm sure he tries in many areas to do the right thing, and he will succeed, but in this case the prize will add or increase his moral authority.

INSKEEP: Moral authority. Well, let's talk about that. Because this is a president who has begun many efforts around the world and the Nobel committee cited them, from reducing the threat of nuclear weapons to reducing nuclear arms stockpiles, efforts to bring peace in different parts of the world. But it's been widely noted this morning that although many efforts have begun, none have really been concluded. Do you think it will make a big difference in those efforts that the peace prize goes to the president?

Mr. WIESEL: First of all, I think he is being recognized for his efforts and his beginnings, as you say. But I am a person who loves beginnings, I love beginnings. The mystery of beginnings is part of Jewish mysticism. And in this case, in politics, of course, because it's also - it's also politics - it is a good thing, it's a promise. The Nobel committee says that he represents a promise and I'm sure that he will try to fulfill it.

INSKEEP: And they do say that they want to encourage him on his way. Is that normal for the Nobel Prize to be used to encourage rather than just reward people?

Mr. WIESEL: Not really. But the Nobel Prize committee has its own rules, and they may decide anything they want. They may decide that encouragement is part of the experiment.

INSKEEP: Mr. Wiesel, it's a pleasure to speak with you this morning. Thank you very much.

Mr. WIESEL: Thank you so much.

INSKEEP: Elie Wiesel won the 1986 Nobel Prize for Peace. He was described then by the Nobel committee as a messenger to mankind. Today the Nobel Prize for Peace goes to President Obama. Surprising the world, the Norwegian Nobel committee hailed Obama's, quote, "extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples." There's been a range of reaction around the world. The Afghanistan Taliban is not happy; Nelson Mandela, Mikhail Gorbachev among other Nobel winners saying they are pleased. President Obama himself is expected to give some response to the world in a couple of hours, and we'll be bringing you more as we learn about the news today to which the world is waking up, that President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize.

This is NPR News.

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