J. Scott Applewhite/AP
President Obama greets Norm Eisen, the White House's ethics czar, in January 2009. Obama used a recess appointment to give Eisen, a friend from law school, the job as U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic just before Christmas.
President Obama greets Norm Eisen, the White House's ethics czar, in January 2009. Obama used a recess appointment to give Eisen, a friend from law school, the job as U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic just before Christmas. J. Scott Applewhite/AP
After two years as White House "ethics czar," Norm Eisen is leaving Washington this month to become the U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic. He will return to his mother's home country and complete a circle that began more than half a century ago.
In Prague, Eisen's family will move into a home that once served as Nazi headquarters. They will make the kitchen kosher, say blessings in Hebrew and light Shabbat candles on Friday nights. And Eisen will represent the country that adopted his family in the country whose Nazi occupiers tried to extinguish his family.
In a gold-hinged frame on Eisen's White House desk, a pair of black-and-white photographs sits next to a basic Czech language textbook. A young man and woman stare out of the pictures, each younger than Eisen is today. "This is my mom's passport photo when she came to the United States," he says. "I think of them every day."
Eisen's father was born in Poland. His mother is from the former Czechoslovakia. While his father escaped from Europe before World War II began, his mother, Frieda, was deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944. She was 21.
"My mom is a Holocaust survivor, and this country offered shelter to my parents," Eisen says during an interview on the couch in his White House office. "So for me, the freedoms that we enjoy — the privileges that we have as Americans — are very, very precious."
The Ethics Czar
President Obama came to office promising to lead the most ethical administration in U.S. history, and he appointed Eisen, his law school friend, to carry out that promise. Although Eisen's business card says "Special Assistant to the President and Special Counsel to the President," people around the White House called him "Dr. No" or "The Fun Sponge," because of his insistence that everyone in the administration adhere to strict ethics rules.
Eisen talks about government openness and transparency with a sincerity that borders on earnestness. "That is a part of the connection between the American government and the American people that keeps our democracy vital," he says. "This really is a government of, by and for the people."
"Nobody loved this country more than my parents," says Eisen. "I imbibe that love of country from my family."
In the last two years, Eisen helped write new rules to keep lobbyists from working in the administration. He made White House visitor logs public. He expanded the Freedom of Information Act, and he pushed hard for whistle-blower and campaign finance laws.
Some of those efforts didn't pan out. On the last day of the lame-duck session of Congress, the House and Senate failed to reconcile two different versions of the bill to expand whistle-blower rights. The bill that would have forced disclosure of campaign spending received only 59 votes in the Senate — one short of the 60 needed to break a Republican filibuster.
"We measure progress not just in minutes or hours or days, but in longer periods of time," says Eisen. "When you swing for the fences, there will be times when you don't quite connect."
'Pushing For Greater Openness'
One of the most striking things about Eisen's tenure is the way advocates outside government describe him. Activists who deal with the environment, labor or gay rights issues often grumble about the slow pace and unambitious agenda of the White House. In contrast, people who fight for government openness, accountability and transparency practically glow when they talk about Eisen and the last two years.
"We've never had an advocate in the White House so deeply committed and aggressive on the issues of government integrity, accountability and transparency," says Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21.
"Many of the successes on the transparency front would not have occurred without Norm continually pushing for greater openness," adds Gary Bass of OMB Watch. "We're now having a debate about how transparency works," rather than whether transparency is important.
Danielle Brian of the Project on Government Oversight believes Eisen's effectiveness comes from his close friendship with Obama. "Everyone around him knew that if this was important to Norm, he could, if he needed to, go to the president on this. That is, in Washington, the card that everyone would love to have."
One telling story about their relationship involves the L.A. Lakers. Eisen is a lifelong fan, and when the basketball team visited the White House, Obama invited Eisen to join the team for a community service project at a Boys and Girls Club in Washington. The Lakers gave Obama an autographed ball, "and afterward, as we were heading back to the motorcade, [Obama] flipped me a no-look pass," recalls Eisen. "Fortunately, I had my wits about me, and I caught the basketball."
After that incident, some people claimed that Eisen and the president share a brain.
'We Laughed And We Cried Both'
Eisen's nomination to be ambassador ran into trouble last year. Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa accused Eisen of improperly firing an inspector general for partisan political reasons. Eisen and the White House denied those claims, but Grassley blocked the nomination. Obama used a recess appointment to put Eisen in the job just before Christmas.
Now, Eisen is leaving the White House to take his family to the land of his mother's birth.
"The residence of the ambassador was the headquarters of the Nazi general staff in World War II," explains Eisen. "We have the privilege to be moving in, and we will put up mezuzot on the doorposts and make the kitchen kosher." (Mezuzot are the small scrolls that mark the doorways of a Jewish home.)
While Eisen's father died many years ago, his mother is living at a Jewish retirement home in Los Angeles. She was unavailable for this story, but Eisen says she is "very, very proud" and shares the press clippings about her son with her friends at the home.
When asked how Frieda Eisen feels about her son's return to the country where she suffered through the Holocaust, Eisen says, "We laughed and we cried both. We couldn't believe it."