Norman Borlaug Honored, Ignored

Gregg Easterbrook is shocked that there was no network news coverage of Norman Borlaug’s being awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, despite his being The Greatest Living American.

The greatest living American is Norman Borlaug, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, and joins Jimmy Carter as the two living American-born laureates around whose necks this distinction as been placed. Do you know Borlaug’s achievement? Would you recognize him if he sat on your lap? Norman Borlaug WON THE NOBEL PEACE PRIZE, yet is anonymous in the land of his birth.


Borlaug’s story is ignored because his is a story of righteousness — shunning wealth and comfort, this magnificent man lived nearly all his life in impoverished nations. If he’d blown something up, lied under oath or been caught offering money for fun, ABC, CBS and NBC would have crowded the Capitol Rotunda today with cameras, hoping to record an embarrassing gaffe. Because instead Borlaug devoted his life to serving the poor, he is considered Not News. All I can say after watching him today is that I hope Borlaug isn’t serious about retiring, as there is much work to be done — and I hope when I’m 93 years old I can speak without notes, as he did.

I’d note that Yasir Arafat WON THE NOBEL PEACE PRIZE, too, so it’s hardly a signifier of greatness.

Unlike Arafat, however, Borlaug’s contributions to mankind’s betterment are unassailable. (Ironically, as that Wikipedia entry notes, the source of the often-touted claim that Borlaug’s work “may have prevented a billion deaths” is “Gregg Easterbrook’s 1997 article ‘Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity.'” So, Easterbrook has been on his Borlaug kick for some time.)

At any rate, Borlaug has won the Nobel Peace Prize, the World Food Prize (which officially bears his name), the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Public Welfare Medal from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the Rotary International Award for World Understanding and Peace, the National Medal of Science, and now the Congressional Gold Medal. It’s not as if he hasn’t been recognized and rewarded for his work.

The fact that his name and face are less recognizable than that of Britney Spears or Paris Hilton may be a sad commentary on our culture but, alas, it’s hardly a new phenomenon. Showing an old man get a medal is hardly going to get people to tune into the evening news shows. We might not like it but, frankly, as Walter Cronkite would say, that’s the way it is.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. James, both you, Gregg, and I have done a little part to fix this slight. It’s a reminder of how human ingenuity can help so many. If you want to talk about tangible science Borlaug’s contributions rival that of Einstein.

  2. Triumph says:

    I don’t know what this Easterbrook guy wants–non stop coverage?

    The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune both ran big pictures of him getting the medal and the Wall Street Journal had a nice article on his accomplishments.

    Showing an old man get a medal is hardly going to get people to tune into the evening news shows.

    Lets also remember that this is old news. Bush signed the congressional legislation in December.

    Of course Borlaug seems a more relevant recipient than the last winner, some professional golfer.

    Since Sinatra won it in ’97, the award has really gone downhill.