Welcome to the world of Norm Eisen

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Karel Schwarzenberg as the current Czech foreign minister. It is Jan Kohout who holds that title and who has a strong working relationship with Eisen, including a recent meeting. Schwarzenberg is Kohout’s predecessor. This version has been corrected.

October 14, 2013

For a Washington insider — those folks who collect names and chits and framed photographs as a genetic imperative — it is the ultimate insider’s game, a highly charged lobbying gig, really, where your client is the United States of America.

It’s a bit unnerving at first, being a U.S. ambassador, especially a political appointee who has never worked in an embassy, much less been in charge, and it requires a certain personal recalibration, since your persona is suddenly magnified and even your utterances can take on meaning. There are the external trappings as well: the armored, chauffeured Cadillac so heavy there’s barely a hint of the cobblestone streets below; a uniformed household staff and white-haired major-domo with a haunting resemblance to “Downton Abbey’s” butler, Carson. Government ministers, opposition ministers, prime ministers, all of whom want your imprimatur.

Nearly three years into his job as President Obama’s personal representative to the Czech Republic, Norm Eisen is in full ambassadorial tilt, the trappings now routine, conversations with dignitaries no different — and often less important — than those with Mr. Cernik, the major-domo who runs the sprawling ambassadorial residence. Eisen started in the hole: When he presented his diplomatic credentials to then-Czech President Vaclav Klaus in January 2011, there had been no U.S. ambassador here for just over two years, and the Czechs, to put it diplomatically, were no longer feeling the love. Klaus made a point of noting, down to the precise number of days, how long it had been.

Meanwhile, Westinghouse Electric, the Pennsylvania-based nuclear power company, was widely perceived to be in third place behind French and Russian competitors for a $10 billion Czech nuclear power project — a contract that could result in thousands of new U.S. jobs in 14 states for years to come.

All this in a country with deep, historical ties to the United States, which served as a cultural and political inspiration to Czechoslovakia when it was founded in 1918, and where, as testament to its affection for America, there is a nationwide predilection for jazz and country music.

Some embassies — such as those in Paris, London or Berlin — are so large and important that the ambassador cedes many decisions to higher-ups at the State Department. “Get a country big enough that it has real problems, but not so big you’ll have no real power,” recently departed U.S. Ambassador to Romania Marc Gitenstein recalls being told by a foreign service veteran. The Czech Republic, which split peacefully from Slovakia in 1993, and whose thousand-year-old capital, Prague, is one of the world’s most beautiful, fits that bill rather nicely.

***

Eisen’s story is more than a tale of a former Washington white-collar attorney, White House ethics counsel, Obama fundraiser and Harvard law school classmate of the current president who is rewarded — willy-nilly — with a plum posting to a random European capital. Eisen, 52, is exquisitely cast for his role: an Orthodox Jew whose mother grew up in what was then eastern Czechoslovakia, survived Auschwitz, returned home after the war and, when the Communists took power in Czechoslovakia in 1948, fled to the United States.

“Without that accident of history,” Eisen frequently tells his guests (and there are so many guests, it’s impossible not to recycle your anecdotes), “I might be the Czech ambassador to the United States and not vice versa.” And, quoting his mother: “The Nazis took us out of there on cattle cars; my son flew back on Air Force One,” a reference to Eisen’s trip with Obama in 2010 — his first time to the region — when the president came to Prague to sign the New START nuclear missile treaty with Russia.

Eisen has a steady, studied manner; when he talks, he invariably gets to the point, and there is often a dry, stand-up quality to his speech, half-Borscht Belt, half-Seinfeld. Eisen speaks passable Czech with a strong American accent, and it is good enough to use on Czech television and radio interviews. And that’s in a language with seven cases and no articles and whose most famous tongue twister, which means “stick your finger through your throat,” consists of four words without vowels — “strč prst skrz krk.” He grew up working at his parents’ hamburger shop in Central Los Angeles. His father, an immigrant from Poland, died when Eisen was 14.

Eisen keeps a kosher household, or rather, his staff ensures that he does, and it’s not easy. The most difficult thing, says Cernik, is a “meat and milk kitchen. Shopping is so complicated. We’re checking every producer on the list [for kosher approval] and sometimes companies are approved but not a certain product.”

Even Eisen has had difficulties. “Kosher Parmesan,” he laments. “I have totally failed in my efforts to find kosher Parmesan.”

Many nights he spends dinnertime with his wife, Lindsay Kaplan, and daughter, Tamar, although since they’ve returned to the States — Kaplan could get no more than a two-year leave of absence from Georgetown University, where she teaches — it’s via Skype, and with the six-hour time difference, usually just before Eisen goes to bed. He has also grown a beard, mostly for the added gravitas.

***

Eisen took the job — and the roughly 90 percent pay cut from what he had been making as a litigator — to promote not just economic and military ties but “shared values,” which he has been happy to push. He lit up the embassy’s large baroque pavilion, which sits on a high hill overlooking the city, with a rainbow of colored lights for Prague Pride Week, and signed a letter along with 12 other ambassadors expressing solidarity with the Czech Republic’s first-ever gay pride parade after a senior adviser to the Czech president referred to gay people as deviant. And he conceived and helped organize an annual world corporate and political governance forum in Prague, which will meet next year for the third time, this in a country whose government collapsed in the summer over a corruption and marital infidelity scandal.

The U.S. Embassy in Prague, housed in a large palace built by a 17th-century count, has about 250 employees, about one-third of whom are Americans, including staffers from the Justice, Defense and Commerce departments. They, too, have been hit by the shutdown, and while the State Department has largely avoided furloughs, employees, including Eisen, have faced stringent work restrictions. For Eisen, all public appearances, meetings not related to national security and travel within the country are on indefinite hold.

Otherwise, Eisen’s public schedule can be as ambitious as a U.S. politician running for reelection. “On some days, I’m going to three, four, five events representing the U.S., and going on TV or radio and giving speeches, so I’m constantly on stage,” says Eisen. On the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, there was a short speech in Czech remembering the event in Prague Castle’s 400-year-old Spanish Hall, a resplendent state room draped with massive chandeliers, followed by a concert of requiem excerpts. When the Brno Philharmonic, led by American conductor Steven Lipsitt, opened the performance with the second section of the Verdi requiem, which begins with five booming chords of sheer terror, the shock jolted audience members from their seats.

“After three years on the job, you get to know people,” says Eisen. “You start to look familiar.” He has a strong working relationship with Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kohout, and met with him one Monday a few hours after returning from Washington. “These conversations are always a two-way street and very situational. No two meetings are alike,” he says. “Sometimes you plan to talk about something, and he wants to talk about something completely different.”

***

Eisen has a litigator’s fondness for detail, a tendency to analyze and reanalyze the endgame, and a desire to keep the pieces in his portfolio well within reach. One technique is a daily, 3 p.m. “stand-up” with senior staff in front of Eisen’s desk in his embassy office, the size of a small banquet hall, that is part of a secure sensitive compartmented information facility, or SCIF, in national security-speak, an area within the building where everyone, including Eisen, must drop off their electronic equipment in a set of cubbyholes before entering.

Stand-ups take place standing up, so they are short and to the point. At one standup last month, scrubbed of any classified or SBU — sensitive but unclassified — material because of the presence of a visitor, and with the understanding that even the most benign comment could not be quoted, four embassy diplomats and the defense attache stood in a row and briefly explained what was uppermost in their minds.

The economic officer noted that several people he needed were not around because they were preparing for a meeting in a neighboring country; the communications chief tried to persuade Eisen to meet with a Czech journalist on a Jewish holiday — he was rebuffed — and the acting political counselor, a career foreign service officer who happens to be blind, went over the various polling numbers for the Czech election later this month. The defense attache discussed mil-to-mils, military jargon for military personnel exchanges, in this case, between the United States and the Czech Republic, and by then 15 minutes had passed and the meeting was over.

“There are literally hundreds of issues in the Czech bilateral relationship,” Eisen says, and the two countries are extremely close allies. The Czechs are the United States’ “protecting power” in Syria, since there is no longer a U.S. embassy there. They represent Washington’s interests in Damascus and provide rudimentary services to American citizens. Czech troops have long served in Afghanistan; there were still 254 Czech soldiers there as of September. And there is the United Nations, where the Czech Republic was one of just nine countries, including the United States and Israel, to vote last year against granting Palestine nonmember observer status.

***

There’s a pitchman’s aspect to the role of an ambassador, and in fact, the mainstay of ambassadorial business is economic. That, in turn, provides an easy metric by which an ambassador’s success can be judged: trend lines in foreign direct investment by Czech firms to the United States, and vice versa. “The numbers are good,” Matthew Murray, the Commerce Department’s deputy assistant secretary for Europe and Eurasia, affirmed during breakfast in the ambassador’s residence.

U.S. companies have invested $5.5 billion in the Czech Republic in the past 20 years, more than in all but four European countries, but the United States is still only the Czech Republic’s 11th-largest trading partner.

“I’m not used to toasting over orange juice,” says Eisen, raising a glass to Murray, “but it’s fresh squeezed.”

Eisen spends a lot of time nurturing the Czech-U.S. business relationship; he talks to Weston Stacey, who runs the American Chamber of Commerce in the Czech Republic, at least once a week.

“This is still not a known market,” says Stacey. “It’s good to have an ambassador here on the ground.” Eisen has accompanied Czech business executives on visits to the United States, and he travels throughout the Czech Republic to promote the U.S.-Czech trade and investments, often arriving alone or with his commercial counselor at various Czech cities like a modern-day potentate.

“It’s the next best thing to having President Obama visit — the mayor, the city council, sometimes the regional governor will show up. I’ll be greeted with traditional delicacies; the word’s gotten out that I’m kosher, so there’s usually not ham,” he explains. “Usually they speak first, and there’s always an exchange of gifts. I travel with a collection of coffee- table books in my trunk at all times.”

Temelín, the Czech nuclear power plant that is one of the largest public projects in Europe, would be the big catch, a defining moment of Eisen’s tenure. A preliminary numerical ranking in March by the state-owned Czech utility, CEZ, has put Westinghouse out in front, although, Eisen tells Murray, “we’re running as if we’re 14 1 / 2 points behind, not 14 1 / 2 points ahead.”

***

The United States is virtually alone among nations in reaching outside the diplomatic corps for its ambassadorial appointments, about a third of which are political. Ferdinand Trauttmansdorff, Eisen’s friend and a diplomat for 31 years who is Austria’s ambassador to the Czech Republic, says that when it works, “it brings into a rather bureaucratic system of professional diplomats a level of energy and communication that is the great advantage of the American system.”

Eisen admits “it can be a little tiring when you’re on your third cocktail party of the day. But you cannot discount the importance of being present in the flesh on a retail basis. You cannot minimize it.”

A State Department official seconded that view: “It’s about your relations with people and how you interact with them,” says the official, who knows the region well but was not allowed to speak on the record. “Can you get their vibe? How can you motivate them, encourage them to pony up troops for Afghanistan, or pass a really hard law that’s going to bite some people, but will be better for the Czech economy?”

At a party for departing French Ambassador Pierre Lévy, a senior European diplomat, who also didn’t have his government’s permission to talk publicly, noted the highly personal nature of diplomacy. “It’s very technically driven, but it’s also very individually driven,” he said. “It can depend on whether you’ve had a fight with your wife, or had a toothache, or there’s a certain chemistry between two people.”

That chemistry, or lack of it, was evident as both Eisen and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kiselev exchanged pleasantries at the party, which was crowded with Prague’s diplomatic corps and their spouses. Both the United States and Russia desperately want to win the Temelín contract, and neither trusts the other’s tactics. Asked whom the eventual winner would be, Kiselev, a short man with a mustache and an impish smile, replied — diplomatically — “The winner is going to be the Czechs.”

***

The U.S. ambassador lives in a 72-room Beaux-Arts masterpiece built in the late 1920s by Otto Petschek, a Jewish industrialist who made his money in the coal industry and was then one of the wealthiest men in Czechoslovakia. The estate and its six acres, four houses and furnishings were left in the care of their head butler in 1938 after the extended family, wary of a Nazi invasion, decamped across the world. Confiscated by the Nazis in 1939, the residence became the headquarters of the German military chief of staff throughout the war. The United States purchased the property as its ambassador’s residence in 1948, the year of the Communist takeover.

During the decades of communism, which lasted until 1989, “the house was a beacon” for Czech dissidents, Eisen told a group of visiting Americans enjoying an informal reception on the porch and some crisp Moravian wine one evening. “Not just to meet the ambassador, but to meet each other.” Eisen said Vaclav Havel, the playwright and first president of post-communist Czechoslovakia, told him he packed a toothbrush when coming over. “Why? Because he never knew if he was going to be arrested.”

Eisen and family spent their first year in the main residence — it’s in the midst of a $5.8 million upgrade of its heating, plumbing and electrical systems — and he’s living in the much smaller but hardly cramped adjoining house. Eisen remembers a moment right after he had arrived and had moved into the Petschek residence. Cernik, the chief butler who has taken care of U.S. ambassadors for at least 20 years, dating back to Shirley Temple Black’s tenure in Prague, asked to see him. “Mr. Cernik comes in,” recalls Eisen, “and he says to me, ‘Ambassador, there’s something I want to show you.’ And he takes me and shows me, on the bottom of a beautiful antique Baroque table in my foyer, a stamp of a Nazi eagle clutching a swastika. I later used that table for my Hanukkah menorah.

“There’s a reason my mother had never come back to the country, and nobody from my family had ever come back,” Eisen adds. “Emotionally, I’d been hearing those stories my whole life, about what the Nazis did to my Mom, to the people here, the murder of my grandparents and my cousins, and it all hit me at that moment.

“It’s mind-blowing, eating on kosher State Department china where the commander of the Nazi Wehrmacht used to live.”

T.R. Goldman is a freelance writer.

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