The Audacity of $1.4 Million

What will President Obama do with his Nobel winnings?

Alfred Nobel

The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded its Peace Prize to Barack Obama Friday morning. During a brief speech shortly thereafter, the president said he would “accept this award as a call to action” but ignored a question shouted from the crowd on how he would spend the $1.4 million in prize money. On Friday afternoon, the White House announced that the new laureate will donate the entire amount to charity. How, exactly, might the president go about doing this?

He may form his own charitable trust. (Perhaps he’ll call it “The Obama Foundation for World Peace,” says University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato.) Recent Democratic presidents have started their own charitable organizations upon leaving office: The Carter Center, for example, or the William J. Clinton Foundation. So Obama has the opportunity to get a head start on his post-White House life. Otherwise, the president will give the $1.4 million to an existing charity. Obama mentioned the “elimination of nuclear weapons” during his remarks, and he may be inclined to choose an organization working toward that goal.

Donating the money is a no-brainer for Obama. He is already personally wealthy from his best-selling books Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hopeand earns an annual salary of $400,000 as commander in chief. Besides, given that Hamas and the Republican National Committee (among other organizations) are using the announcement as an opportunity to criticize Obama’s accomplishments (or lack thereof), it would have been highly impolitic for him to pocket the cash.

Previous winners, vexed with the question of how to spend their cash prize, have frequently opted for donation. Jimmy Carter, who received the prize in 2002, redirected most of the award to his Carter Center in Atlanta and a portion to the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving at Georgia Southwestern University. Al Gore donated all of the proceeds from his 2007 peace prize to the Alliance for Climate Protection. And Martin Luther King Jr. gave the money to the civil rights movement. Theodore Roosevelt, the first sitting president to receive the prize, felt it would have been improper to travel to Europe and accept the honor while in office. He waited until 1910 to pick up the award and pledged, initially, to use the cash as seed money for a peace foundation. By 1918, his plans for the foundation were not going forward, so he made 28 donations of various amounts—to the Red Cross, the YMCA National War Work Council, and other organizations. He also distributed money to worthy friends, including $1,000 to his wife’s sister Emily Carow, a volunteer with the Italian Red Cross.

The second sitting president to receive the prize, Woodrow Wilson, “behaved rather ignobly over the monetary award”—according to Robert M. Saunders’ In Search of Woodrow Wilson. He was worried about his financial security after he left the presidency and kvetched that the Swedish crown wasn’t worth much. Ultimately, he left the money in a Swedish bank, hoping to reap a 5 percent annual interest rate.

The artists and scientists who receive Nobel Prizes are more likely to keep the prize money for themselves. Franco Modigliani, who won the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics in 1985, bought a sailboat; 2001 physics laureate Wolfgang Ketterle bought a house and paid for his children’s education. When a reporter asked 2005 literature prize winner Elfriede Jelinek what the prize meant to her, she replied “financial independence.”

Bonus Explainer: After the surprise announcement Friday morning, some pundits—including Slate’s own Mickey Kaus—advised Obama to decline the prize. Has anyone turned down a Nobel Prize? Yes. Vietnamese politician Le Duc Tho, awarded the 1973 Peace Prize along with Henry Kissinger, said he was not in a position to accept the prize, since there was as of yet no lasting peace in Vietnam. In 1964, Jean-Paul Sartre refused the Nobel Prize in literature. “It is not the same thing if I sign Jean-Paul Sartre or if I sign Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prize winner,” he wrote. “A writer must refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution, even if it takes place in the most honorable form.”

Bonus Bonus Explainer: Deputy Foreign Minister of Hamas, Ahmed Yousef, released a statement saying it was “too early” for Obama to receive the award since “he has not done that much yet.” Let’s say Obama one day converts his bold intentions into achievements. Could he receive a second prize? Based on historical precedent, yes. Frederick Sanger won the Nobel Prize for chemistry twice, in 1958 and again in 1980. John Bardeen won twice for physics, in 1956 and in 1972. Linus Pauling won for chemistry in 1954 and for peace in 1962. And Maria Sklodowska-Curie won for physics in 1903 and for chemistry in 1911.

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Explainer thanks Deanna Congileo of the Carter Center and Larry J. Sabato of the University of Virginia.