It was one of the most cringe-worthy moments of any congressional hearing in recent memory. Freshman Rep. Curt Clawson (R-Fla.), during a House Foreign Affairs Committee last week, spoke to two senior officials from the U.S. State Department and Commerce Department, respectively, but the Republican congressman told them, "I'm familiar with your country; I love your country," assuming they were from India
. The officials, Nisha Biswal and Arun Kumar, may have Indian surnames, but they're Americans who were giving congressional testimony on behalf of the Obama administration.
Making matters slightly worse, after Biswal clarified matters, Clawson didn't apologize, instead telling the officials, "OK, let's see some progress."
Clawson won a special election last month to replace Trey Radel, who resigned following a cocaine bust. The political novice, who was a businessman and college basketball player before running for office, apologized in a statement sent to our Gannett colleague, Ledyard King. "I made a mistake in speaking before being fully briefed and I apologize. I'm a quick study, but in this case I shot an air ball," Clawson said.
This might have been a more straightforward apology without the "being fully briefed" comment -- the congressman really shouldn't blame his staff for this one -- but the apology otherwise gets the job done.
As for Biswal, she took the high road.
Friday night on Twitter, the State Department official said
Clawson's misstep was an "honest mistake" from a "new member of Congress." She added that the "strength and beauty of America is its diversity," and that she's "proud to represent my country" and President Obama.
That is a gracious approach to the incident. Biswal was clearly wise to pursue a career in diplomacy.
Adding a layer of irony to last week's embarrassing performance -- you know, when a U.S. congressman mistook a non-white U.S. official for a foreigner -- the Indian American woman witness once was a staffer on the same committee. Yes, Nisha Biswal, the assistant secretary in the State Department's Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, was a staffer on the House Foreign Affairs Committee from 1999 through 2002. After more than a decade working in U.S. government and policy, Biswal returned last Thursday to the her former employer -- the committee appears to have been her first Capitol Hill job -- to find that at least one congressman did not bother to read her bio before questioning her at a hearing.
Biswal was introduced as a former committee staffer during the hearing, though Clawson apparently missed it.