The Nobel Obama pointer for John Key

Either the Nobel peace prize judges have taken leave of this world or they have preternatural premonitions of promise fulfilled. President Barack Obama got the prize for doing … well, some great speeches.

The judges’ adulation of a work in gestation is a measure of modern western society’s need for heroes. That includes us.

Lord Ashcroft, billionaire, British Conservative party deputy chair and funder of the rescue of the stolen military medals a couple of years back, reminded us this week at the launch of New Zealand’s belated adoption of Crimestoppers of the national upset at their theft.

Medal winners are heroes. They got their medals for actions. Charles Upham became famous for winning two Victoria Crosses.

Sir Edmund Hillary became famous for scaling Everest, a stupendous feat at the time. He added to his fame with on-the-ground aid for the Nepalese. His down-to-earth manner converted his fame into national hero — one of us but far more than one of us. His face is on the $5 banknote.

The $10 banknote inhabitant, Kate Sheppard, is famous for winning votes for women in the face of tradition, trickery and misogyny.

But fame in modern times has mutated. When Princess Diana was killed, the Economist magazine suggested that in our sorts of societies the famous had gone from being famous for what they did to being famous for who they were to, in the princess’s case, being famous for being famous.

Diana was a celebrity. Celebrities are celebrated for being celebrities, a modern-day opiate of the people, more narcotic than religion was in Karl Marx’s day.

With help from the internet you can even make your own opiate of tiny fame, on a blog or Facebook. You are what you tweet nowadays.

Heroes like Hillary and Sheppard are not made so by fame. They go into the unknown, exhibit courage, often to risk everything. They submerge the self in the deed (which can appear as humility or modesty to onlookers). They command loyalty from friends and subordinates. They inspire and motivate and bring out the best in people. Their faults, which can be large, are forgiven for their deeds and their personas.

So Sir Peter Blake was lionised in death — Americas’ Cup winner and saviour of waterways and life forms in Brazil where he was gunned down. The media and politicians made of him a memorial for a young nation.

Last month the media and politicians did the same to Sir Howard Morrison last month. His funeral was a national obsequy. He was accorded a panegyric in Parliament.

Was he on a par with Inia te Wiata and Dame Kiri te Kanawa as a singer? Were his good works exceptional? Or was a fine entertainer and a helper of others enough to be going on with?

At least Sir Howard’s accolades came after a remarkable career and a productive life. Obama has yet to do any peacemaking — yet to do much at all nearly a year after his election.

He characterised the judges’ awkward mistake as not “recognition of my own accomplishments but rather as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations”. But that has yet to be re-proven after the George Bush’s adventurism.

In the New Yorker magazine, where a liberal apologia might have been expected, Hendrik Hertzberg wrote: “He came into office on a tide of euphoria.” (A tide still welling up the Norwegian fiords, it seems.) “Lately, though, his supporters have … a vague sense of disappointment… The jobless rate keeps on climbing, the planet keeps on heating up, Guatanamo keeps on not getting closed and roadside bombs keep exploding. He … still hasn’t signed a comprehensive health-care bill.”

Obama, appropriately, accepted the award “as a call to action, a call for all nations to confront the common challenges of the twenty-first century”.

Here the Greens’ Kennedy Graham put it thus: “From now on the peoples of the world will perceive you in a new light, with heightened expectations.”

John Key is not Obama. But he is both one-of-us and exceptional which makes him highly acceptable across a wide spectrum of the population. It’s not euphoria but nor is it just tolerance.

Like Obama, Key has an unusual mandate — not just to do what his election manifesto said or what the polls tell him but to be farsighted and bold.

Nearly a year after his election, he has celebrity status but has yet to stamp himself on his government in the large way his acceptability allows and thereby shape his country’s view of its future.

Is it coming? He has in recent months given more weight to innovation policy than the Treasury approves.

Innovation is the biggest ingredient in the “growth agenda” Key puts at the core of his programme. It is also a large ingredient in improving lives in ways not measured by GDP. Stimulating innovation could be transformational (of course, with a dash of Kiwi modesty).

It’s not Nobel prize stuff but in a small country it could make Key famous in the future for what he does, not just famous now for being famous now.