4:06pm

Tue June 17, 2014
Politics

The Would-Be Ambassador To Norway Who Has Never Been There Himself

Originally published on Wed June 18, 2014 9:41 am

It wasn't expected to be a controversial nomination. After all, ambassador to Norway isn't a very high-profile position.

But the nomination of George Tsunis, a major fundraiser for President Obama and other Democrats in 2012, has turned into a minor embarrassment for the administration.

The reason? Several prominent Democrats say they won't vote for him on the grounds he's not qualified.

The resistance is rooted in Minnesota, which is home to the nation's largest community of Norwegian-Americans. More than 1 in 6 Minnesotans have Norwegian ancestors, and pretty much every city, burg and hamlet in the state has a Sons of Norway lodge.

Heck, even the professional football team is named the Vikings.

That community says sending Tsunis to Oslo as an ambassador would embarrass the United States.

"We expect the U.S. representative to Norway to be someone who can meet at least a minimum standard of qualifications," said Ivar Sorensen, a former head of the Norwegian-American Chamber of Commerce. He spoke from Oslo, where he was vacationing.

Sorensen is not necessarily against sending wealthy donors abroad as ambassadors, but "Mr. Tsunis, unfortunately, failed the test in public view," he said.

He's referring to what is likely go down as one of the most cringeworthy nomination hearings in recent memory.

Tsunis' January Senate confirmation hearing started innocuously enough. "I am both honored and humbled to appear before you today as President Obama's nominee to be the ambassador to the Kingdom of Norway," he told the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. But almost right away, the wealthy New York businessman started flailing.

It turns out the man who wants to be the next ambassador to Norway has never even been to Norway.

And anyone who's been called on in class when he wasn't prepared can probably sympathize with this moment:

"There are a lot of markets that will continue to open up. Uh ..." said Tsunis, trailing off amid a statement about U.S.-Norwegian trade.

"Let me just ask, as ambassador, how you promote those trade cooperations?" interjected Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican.

"Thank you for that save, Sen. Johnson," Tsunis said.

Then it went even further downhill.

Tsunis said Norway has a president. It doesn't — the country has a king and a prime minister.

Tsunis then described one of Norway's major political parties — a member of the current coalition government — as a "fringe element" that "spewed hatred."

Arizona Republican John McCain was unimpressed.

"The government has denounced them?" McCain said. "They're part of the coalition of the government."

"You know what? I stand corrected," an embarrassed Tsunis responded.

In response to the hearing, Sorensen and other Scandinavian-American leaders in Minnesota got together and organized. They wrote newspaper op-eds, put out petitions and got in touch with their elected representatives.

"It's a tight community and we heard from them," said Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, a Democrat. "We want diplomats to be pretty good under pressure anyway and he seemed not to be and he displayed a tremendous amount of ignorance about Norway."

Franken, who's up for re-election this fall, recently announced his opposition to the nomination.

He's joined by Minnesota's other senator, Democrat Amy Klobuchar, South Dakota Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson and McCain, who have also vowed to vote against Tsunis.

Sorensen also noted the hearing made for some pretty unflattering headlines in Norway.

Tsunis' fate is ultimately up to the White House and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has the power to bring the nomination up for a vote.

Copyright 2014 Minnesota Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.mpr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. It wasn't expected to be a controversial nomination. After all, ambassador to Norway isn't a very high profile position. But the nomination of George Tsunis has turned into a minor embarrassment for the Obama administration. He was a major fundraiser for the president and for Democrats in 2012. Several prominent Democrats say they won't vote for Tsunis on the grounds that he's not qualified.

Brett Neely of Minnesota Public Radio reports on the campaign to block the nominee.

BRETT NEELY, BYLINE: Minnesota is home to the nation's largest community of Norwegian-Americans. More than one in six Minnesotans have Norwegian ancestors. Pretty much every city, burg and hamlet in the state has a Sons of Norway lodge. And heck, the football team is named the Vikings. That community says sending Tsunis to Oslo as an ambassador would embarrass the United States.

IVAR SORENSEN: We expect - I think, that the U.S. representative to Norway be someone who can meet at least a minimum standard of qualifications.

NEELY: Ivar Sorensen, a former head of the Norwegian American Chamber of Commerce, says he's not necessarily against sending wealthy donors abroad as ambassadors. Sorensen spoke from Oslo where he was vacationing.

SORENSEN: Mr. Tsunis, unfortunately, failed the test in public view.

NEELY: He's referring to what will likely go down as one of the most cringe-worthy nomination hearings in recent memory. Tsunis' January Senate confirmation hearing started innocuously enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE TSUNIS: I am both honored and humbled to appear before you today...

NEELY: Almost right away, the wealthy New York businessman started flailing. It turns out the man who wants to be the next ambassador to Norway has never even been to Norway. And anyone who has ever been called on in class when they weren't prepared can probably sympathize with this moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TSUNIS: There are a lot of markets that will continue to open up. Uh...

SENATOR RON JOHNSON: Let me just ask, as ambassador, how would you promote those trade cooperations?

TSUNIS: Thank you for that save, Sen. Johnson.

NEELY: Then it went even further downhill. Tsunis said Norway has a president. It doesn't - the country has a king and a prime minister. Tsunis then described one of Norway's major political parties that's part of the current government as a fringe element that spewed hatred. Arizona Republican John McCain was unimpressed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: The government has that denounced them? They're part of the coalition of the government.

TSUNIS: Well, I would say, you know, what? I stand corrected.

NEELY: In response, Ivar Sorensen and other Scandinavian-American leaders in Minnesota got together and organized. They wrote newspaper op-eds, put out petitions and got in touch with their elected representatives.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SENATOR AL FRANKEN: It's a tight community and we heard from them.

NEELY: That's Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, a Democrat. Franken, who's up for reelection this fall, recently announced his opposition to the nomination.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANKEN: We want diplomats to be pretty good under pressure anyway and he seemed not to be. And he displayed a tremendous amount of ignorance about Norway.

NEELY: Minnesota's other Senator, Democrat Amy Klobuchar, South Dakota Democrat Tim Johnson, and John McCain also vowed a vote against Tsunis. Sorensen says the hearing made for some pretty unflattering headlines in Norway. Tsunis' fate is ultimately up to the White House and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has the power to bring the nomination up for a vote. For NPR News, I'm Brett Neely. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related Program