STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Now, in this country, President Obama came to office promising to lead the most ethical administration in American history. The man in charge of carrying out that promise is now leaving Washington. His name is Norm Eisen and he is giving up the title of White House ethics czar to become U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic.
NPR's Ari Shapiro visited Eisen during one of his last days at the White House and discovered that this is not just any foreign posting. It completes a circle that began more than half a century ago.
ARI SHAPIRO: On Norm Eisen's desk - right next to a basic Czech language textbook - he keeps a black and white photograph in a gold frame.
Mr. NORM EISEN (White House Ethics Czar): This is my mom's passport photo when she came to the United States. I've blown it up.
SHAPIRO: Norm Eisen's mother Frieda was born in Czechoslovakia in 1923. When she was 21, the Nazis took her to the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Mr. EISEN: My mom is a Holocaust survivor, and this country offered shelter to my parents. And so for me, the freedoms that we enjoy - the privileges that we have as Americans - are very, very precious.
SHAPIRO: Now Eisen is making a pilgrimage back to his mother's home country. The immigrant mentality is the connective tissue between Norm Eisen's new life as the U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic, and his old life as White House ethics czar. He is zealous about government openness.
Mr. EISEN: That is a part of the connection between the American government and the American people that keeps our democracy vital, that keeps us in a leadership position really throughout the world. And this really is a government of, by and for the people.
SHAPIRO: In the last two years, Eisen helped write new rules for lobbyists working in the administration. He made White House visitor logs public, expanded the Freedom of Information Act, and pushed for whistle-blower and campaign finance laws.
Some of those efforts didn't pan out. The whistleblower bill failed in the last day of the lame-duck session in Congress, and the campaign spending bill only received 59 votes in the Senate - one short of the 60 needed to break a filibuster.
Mr. EISEN: When you swing for the fences, there will be times when you don't quite connect. Sometimes you try for the home run, you get a single or a double or a triple. But we measure progress not just in minutes or hours or days, but in longer increments of time.
SHAPIRO: One of the most striking things about Eisen's tenure is the way advocates outside of the government describe him. When you talk to environmental activists, or union leaders, you hear a lot of grumbling about the White House and promises unfulfilled. But talk about Eisen with good government advocates like Fred Wertheimer of the Group Democracy 21 and it's a different story.
Mr. FRED WERTHEIMER (President Group Democracy 21): We've never had an advocate in the White House so deeply committed and aggressive on the issues of government integrity, accountability and transparency.
SHAPIRO: Many credit Eisen's success to his close relationship with the president. The men have been friends since they were in law school together. One telling story involves the LA Lakers. Eisen is a lifelong fan. And when the basketball team visited the White House, President Obama went to a Boys and Girls Club with them for a community service project and took Eisen along. The Lakers gave Mr. Obama an autographed basketball.
Mr. EISEN: And afterward, as we were heading back to the motorcade, he did flip me a no-look pass. Fortunately, I had my wits about me, and I caught the basketball and that is the source of that story.
SHAPIRO: After that, some people claimed that Eisen and the president share a brain.
His nomination to be ambassador ran into trouble last year. Republican Senator 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. President Obama used a recess appointment to put Eisen in the job just before Christmas.
Now, Norm Eisen is leaving Washington behind for the land of his mother's birth in the Czech Republic.
Mr. EISEN: The residence of the ambassador was the headquarters of the Nazi general staff in World War II. We have the privilege to be moving in, and we will put up mezuzot on the doorposts and make the kitchen kosher.
SHAPIRO: Mezuzot are the small scrolls that mark the doorways of a Jewish home.
In the former Nazi headquarters, Eisen's family will light the Shabbat candles and say the blessings every Friday night. While Eisen's father died many years ago, his mother is living at a Jewish retirement home in Los Angeles. He says she's very proud.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
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