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

George Tsunis, the Obama administration's nominee for ambassador to Norway, at his January confirmation hearing.
George Tsunis, the Obama administration's nominee for ambassador to Norway, at his January confirmation hearing.

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 2021 MPR News. To see more, visit MPR News.

Brett Neely is an editor with NPR's Washington Desk, where he works closely with NPR Member station reporters on political coverage and edits stories about election security and voting rights.
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