A Nobel Prize Winner in the Cabinet

Dec 11, 2008 7:40am

Is Steven Chu the first Nobel Laureate nominated to join a presidential Cabinet?

It appears so.

Yesterday, word leaked that Chu would be President-elect Obama’s nominee to serve as secretary of the Department of Energy. In 1997, Chu was one of three men who shared a Nobel Prize for physics for their developments of methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light.

Others in the White House have been awarded various Nobel Prizes while in office or after leaving. But no one ever appears to have been awarded the recognition before joining an administration.

In 1973, then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Le Duc Tho.

Several former secretaries of state went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize after leaving office:

Former Secretary of State Elihu Root in 1912 for originating various treaties of arbitration;

Former Secretary of State Frank Billings Kellogg in 1929 for being part originator of the Briand-Kellogg Pact;

Former Secretary of State Cordell Hull in 1945 for his work on originating the United Nations;

Former Secretary of State and of Defense George Catlett Marshall in 1953 for starting the Marshall Plan to redevelop Europe post-World War II.

The award has gone to two presidents in office, one since leaving office:

President Teddy Roosevelt 1906 for his work on various treaties;

President Woodrow Wilson 1919 for founding the League of Nations;

And former President Jimmy Carter in 2002 for "his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development."

And attention Mr. Biden — the award has also gone to two vice presidents — Vice President Charles Gates Dawes in 1925 for his work as chairman of the Allied Reparation Commission (Originator of "Dawes Plan") and former Vice President Al Gore last year for raising awareness about climate change.

But, as for putting someone who already won a Nobel Prize into the Cabinet, Mr. Chu’s nomination appears to be unprecedented.

One other note on this — commentators out there might want to stop referring to President-elect Obama’s team as "the best and the brightest."

That term, coined by the late, great David Halberstam about the JFK and LBJ Cabinets who planned the war in Vietnam, was meant ironically, as Frank Rich noted a few days ago.

- jpt

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