WASHINGTON -- Relations between Norway and the United States are usually a placid affair, going back centuries to when the Norwegian Constitution of 1814 took the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence as inspiration.
However, President Barack Obama's pick for ambassador to Norway seems to be spicing up the diplomatic relationship by sticking his foot in his mouth before even getting to the post.
George Tsunis, also a top Obama bundler, recently made comments about Norway's political situation that revealed his knowledge of the country where he is trying to secure a top diplomatic post is shaky.
"What do you think the appeal of the Progress Party was, according to the Norwegian voters?" asked Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Jan. 16.
"That is a very seminal question," Tsunis said. "Generally Norway has, and is very proud of being a very open, transparent, Democratic, parliamentary government. One of the byproducts of being such an open society and placing such a value on free speech is you get some fringe elements that have a microphone that spew their hatred and although I will tell you that Norway has been very quick to denounce them -- "
McCain interrupted, pointing out that the Progress Party is part of the center-right coalition government in Norway, with seven ministers.
"I stand corrected, and would like to leave my answer that it's a very, very open society," Tsunis responded.
The party won 16.9 percent of the vote in 2012, down from 22.9 percent in 2009. While still very anti-immigrant, the party has tried to become more moderate in an attempt to win votes. "They’ve gotten more housebroken," Anders Romarheim, a fellow at the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies, told The New York Times. Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people in 2011 when he bombed government buildings in Oslo and conducted a mass shooting, was a member of the party from 1999 to 2006. He was removed for not paying dues.
In last week's hearing, Tsunis also referred to Norway's "president," despite the fact that the country is a constitutional monarchy.
Tsunis has been a top fundraiser for President Barack Obama and the Democratic party. Tsunis, the CEO of Chartwell Hotels, bundled over $500,000 for Obama's 2012 campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. He also donated $300,000 to Democratic-leaning super PACs in 2012, according to FEC records. He attended a state dinner with Prime Minister David Cameron in March 2012.
One European politics expert, Jytte Klausen of Brandeis University, said that it was not unusual for a nominee for ambassador to be ignorant about the country's politics.
"The Norwegian Progress Party is in fact vile. And it is business as usual to have an appointee who knows nothing about the country he or she is going to, especially if it is a small country that is wrapped in stereotypes in the American public mind," Klausen said in an email. "And who can blame the American public? News media here constantly portray Europeans in caricatures, recycling the same cliches year in and out. You know them: 'Scandinavians are nice and tolerant,' 'The French are uppity and care only about sex,' etc."
The Norwegian Embassy in Washington, D.C., declined to comment. A State Department representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Paul Blumenthal contributed reporting.
CORRECTION: This post originally misstated the amount that Tsunis bundled for Obama -- he bundled over $500,000 (as specific a figure as available per disclosure requirements) and he and his family have donated $843,225 to all federal candidates, parties and PACs since 1990, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.