A victory for the good folks of Lake Wobegon

Photo: C-SPAN  George Tsunis in his Senate confirmation hearing.

Photo: C-SPAN
George Tsunis in his Senate confirmation hearing.

James Bruno
Washington, D.C.

Even in a time of elephantine vanity and greed, one never has to look far to see the campfires of gentle people.
~ Garrison Keillor

There is hope for American democracy after all. Against a torrent of political cash and the power and prestige of the White House, the Norwegian-American community has succeeded in derailing the appointment of George Tsunis as U.S. ambassador to Norway. A Long Island hotel magnate who won the nomination after showering President Obama and key senators with over a million dollars in campaign contributions, Mr. Tsunis gained notoriety by parading his abject ignorance of Norway and its form of government during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this year. He exceeded even the disgracefully low standards of other Obama ambassadorial nominees, including the TV soap opera assistant producer Colleen Bell and Democratic Party operative Noah Mamet, confirmed this week as ambassadors to Hungary and Argentina, respectively. They won confirmation in partisan votes, having bundled millions for the president.

To his credit, Mr. Tsunis told Newsday, “Norway has been without an ambassador for two years and the overarching thing should be: Let’s get them a first-rate ambassador.” Indeed.

Not known for being rock-the-boat type people, Norwegian-Americans have achieved quite a feat. Incensed over the president’s cash-driven nomination of an insultingly unqualified man to represent the United States in their ancestral land, they quietly, yet meticulously organized an effort to oppose it. Through social media, news contacts, collaboration with like-minded groups and hard-nosed lobbying of senators, they managed to get at least four Democrats (Klobuchar, Franken, Johnson, Heitkamp) to come out against the Tsunis nomination. And no arm-twisting by the White House could reverse their positions. The Norwegian-American activists even reached out to me, and I was impressed with their resolve. It became starkly clear to the dark politico-wizards in the Executive Mansion that they lacked the numbers to ram the nominee through the lame duck Senate as they had with Bell and Mamet. They had bumped against mighty Galdhøpiggen.

I, for one, find it amazing that one fairly small constituency, one with very modest resources, could win, like David against Goliath, against Big Money and Big Politics. It gives hope that grassroots organizing can still have a positive impact even as our enlightened House of Representatives has passed a spending bill that would increase allowed campaign contributions from individuals by tenfold. Once this becomes law, the current flood of cash corrupting our political system will become a tsunami. A married couple will be able to contribute $1.3 million to various party committees in a two-year election cycle.

And you can bet your lutefisk that this Niagara of campaign cash will whet even more the appetites of rich-as-Croesus plutocrats to play ambassador. The average amount raised to buy the choicest embassies has gone from $800,000 in 2000 to $1.79 million in the last presidential election. The new campaign donation allowance, on the heels of the Citizens United case, will make the sky the limit. And our national security be damned as foreign policy is sold to the highest bidders.

So, let us salute our intrepid citizens of Norwegian descent, follow their example and implore them to fire up their Viking blood again to fight the good fight against the cash-fueled political corruption that is corroding our society. As they say in Lake Wobegon, “Sometimes you have to look reality straight in the eye—and deny it.”

James Bruno is a bestselling author. He has been featured on many national and international media outlets. Bruno is a contributor to Politico Magazine and an instructor at ThrillerFest. Bruno served as a diplomat with the U.S. Department of State for twenty-three years and currently is a member of the Diplomatic Readiness Reserve, subject to worldwide duty on short notice. He holds M.A. degrees from the U.S. Naval War College and Columbia University, and a B.A. from George Washington University.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 26, 2014, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.