Tom Loftus

Lessons of State Politics Go Global

The phone rang in Tom Loftus MA1972’s office at the U.S. Embassy in Norway, and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela was on the line.

Mandela, who received the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, invited Loftus to his suite at the Grand Hotel in Oslo following his Nobel lecture that day.

“He made me feel like I had won the Nobel Peace Prize,” said Loftus, President Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Norway from 1993 to 1997. “Could a human being get to be this good?”

Portrait of Tom Loftus

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Embassy Oslo.

Mandela appealed to Loftus — a close friend of Clinton’s — to intervene in talks over the World Trade Organization and help lift textile tariffs and quotas that were crucial to South Africa.

“I can’t be president if you take textile jobs away from us,” Mandela said.

Loftus intervened, phoning Clinton and setting up a call between Mandela and Mickey Kantor, Clinton’s trade representative. “We can’t not do this as a country,” Loftus told Clinton.

Eight months later, Mandela was elected president of South Africa.

Loftus’s career began as a political science grad student at UW–Madison, where he started volunteering on campaigns. Soon he was working as a legislative staffer.

A master at interpreting voter lists and doing retail politics in the pre-computer era, Loftus won election to the Wisconsin Assembly in 1976. In 1983, he was elected Assembly speaker and served an unprecedented four terms.

Loftus worked across the aisle to win legislative victories. “You couldn’t be an effective speaker unless you had an effective leader of the minority party. You had to make deals with somebody,” he said.

After losing to Tommy Thompson BS1963, JD1966 in the 1990 gubernatorial race, Loftus campaigned for Clinton and won appointment at a key time in Norway’s history — at the end of the Cold War, when the neighboring Soviet Union became Russia. Loftus helped in the transition and with negotiating a treaty in which Russia agreed not to dump low-level radioactive waste from submarines into the Arctic Ocean.

Loftus later worked as special adviser to the director general of the World Health Organization from 1998 to 2005 and also served on the UW System Board of Regents from 2005 to 2011.