Former White House ethics lawyer Norman Eisen, as regular readers know, is an indispensable guru on the ethical free fall in which we find ourselves, and is a litigant and complainant in actions taking on the administration’s corrupt and unconstitutional conduct.
He is also the author of a magnificent new books on an (almost) unrelated topic that’s gotten rave reviews — lots of them — for “The Last Palace,” which examines the course of Czech history from the 1930s to World War II to the Cold War to the Soviet repression of the Prague Spring, as seen through the prism of the house that Eisen, son of a Holocaust survivor, once inhabited as ambassador to the Czech Republic.
Eisen says his is a story “of the fight between democracy and illiberalism in Europe and the United States over the past century.” He explains that his book does this “through the lives of four of those who preceded me in the magnificent home in Prague where I resided as U.S. ambassador: the Jewish billionaire, the Nazi general, the American envoy who fought the Cold War, and the movie star ambassador who helped end it.”
Woven into the historical work is the intimate story of Eisen’s mother “a Czech Holocaust survivor who sent me back to Prague to live in the palace once occupied by the Nazi occupiers who deported her to Auschwitz — and was my best adviser as I took on today’s illiberals.”
My conversation with Eisen about his book, his experience with antidemocratic regimes in Europe, and his relationship to Sen. John McCain, a champion of human rights, follows:
You’re the son of a Czech Holocaust survivor, a former ambassador to Prague. Does that inform your understanding of the rise of right-wing, nativist parties in Eastern Europe and even here in the United States?
Eisen: Yes, my life experience and my research alike warned me this was coming. My mother always taught us to expect anything. That tempered my natural optimism, a recurring dynamic between the two of us in the last chapter as we together witness the rise of the far-right-wing, anti-democratic, illiberal energy. Her journey through the century weaves together the stories of my other four protagonists, and I enter into the picture in the first and the last chapters, in which we together deal with today, including the recurrence of the hate of “the other.” She was my best adviser as I took on the European illiberals as ambassador because she had no illusions.
But researching and writing the book prepared me as well. What you see is a pattern in Europe of democracy’s rise, always aided by the U.S. (e.g., 1918, 1945 and 1989), and of illiberalism’s counterattack (1938, 1948 and today). There are three big cycles of liberal advance and three illiberal counterreactions. We are in the middle of one today! Democracy always wins, history suggests its ultimately more powerful. Otto Petschek’s palace is like an ocean liner sailing through those peaks and troughs — the stormy political seas of the century. My five characters are the successive passengers. The only question is how long its hibernation will last. That is up to us; over and over again, individual choices make all the difference in the length and pain of the illiberal cycle. That is why if there is a single takeaway from the book it is this: Vote!
During World War II and beyond, the United States was always the anchor of democratic values and an international world order that secured peace and prosperity. What happens when the United States abandons that role?
Eisen: [President] Trump’s thrashing about and innate sympathy with tyrants and hostility to democracy has done some damage, true. He is a far cry from the visionary American leaders I write about who visit or affect the palace and those who live there: Wilson, FDR, Patton, Ike, Truman, Acheson, the Dulleses, Nixon (a foreign policy master despite his domestic flaws), Reagan, [George H.W.] Bush, Clinton, Albright, Obama. You see them differently through my protagonists eyes, however, as humans in the midst of earth-changing events. (Guess which one got up early and did his or her own laundry in the palace, even in the midst of crisis?)
But they were giants, whatever their flaws, and they maintained the leadership role you describe. Trump may not, but among the pleasant surprises of his tenure so far is that the rest of American government has not abandoned that role. Take the recent NATO communique: Trump’s own staff conspired with our European allies to get one of the best communiques in years, including taking real steps against Putin. Just as our American democratic systems have proved resilient and independent, e.g., rule of law in the form of prosecutors, plaintiffs and judges, so too with the international order, so far. Of course, if some accountability and balance is not restored in the midterms, we could be in for even more damage.
On a personal level, what was your reaction when the Cold War ended, the Warsaw Pact disintegrated?
Eisen: Relief! And gratitude to those heroes I named who kept up the battle for freedom all those decades. A long war indeed, even if a cold one. One of the biggest surprises many readers of “The Last Palace” have is learning Shirley Temple’s role in ending Communism in Czechoslovakia. She happened to have been there, and in the palace, on a visit the day the Soviet Bloc invaded in 1968. She determined to give up entertainment, become an ambassador, and return to help end Communism — and that is just what she did in 1989. She was a model ambassador, as far as I am concerned, although some of her unorthodox methods are still controversial. But then, so were mine.
You’ve devoted a great deal of your adult life to the preservation of democracy and to the rule of law. Are democracy/the rule of law winning or is President Trump winning?
Eisen: Liberalism is winning, as it always does. Look at the far worse tyrants it has felled over the past 100 years. I write about how that works, and it seems to give readers hope. I know it does me. In the case of Trump, we are only in the sixth or so round of a 15-round heavyweight battle. Trump is being pummeled, and the worst punishment is to come. I once saw a movie where a character had a word tattooed on each of his fists. Well, [if] democracy and the rule of law did that, the words would be “obstruction” and “collusion” — though “conspiracy” would be more accurate for the second of that coming one-two punch.
The courts during the Trump era have held up remarkably well, as has the press. Congress has not. Can we correct course without the other two branches both moving to check an authoritarian-minded executive?
Eisen: If the forces of accountability take back even one house of Congress in the fall, that will be enough to do it. If not, we are in for one of the longer winters of democracy that have sometimes set in over the past century and that I describe in the book. But we have a fail-safe: We preserve democracy on both sides of the Atlantic, like keeping a backup disc in case your primary one fails. So, sooner or later, democracy will when. Hopefully sooner though, the costs of those long political winters are high.
Are you optimistic about the progress of American democracy?
Eisen: I am the child of a Czechoslovak survivor of the Holocaust and Communism, who went back to live in a house once occupied by the Nazis and Soviets representing the most powerful nation on earth. How can I not be an optimist!
And finally, your thoughts on John McCain, whom you knew through your work on everything from human rights to anti-corruption efforts?
Eisen: I had the privilege of knowing him, and indeed of discussing the palace and some of the stories that I write about in the book with him. He loved Prague, and [the Czechs] loved him back for his commitment to freedom. He gave me very detailed instructions on how not to mess things up as ambassador in Prague, only he used another word instead of “mess.”
He was always kind to me, first, when I occasionally met him in the orbit of one of my political mentors, Sen. Joe Lieberman; then in campaign-finance and government-reform circles as the founder of this up-and-coming watchdog group CREW [the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington]. . . . I got to know him better as I benefited from his vigorous advocacy for my confirmation, and during my encounters with him from time to time after that in social settings or foreign-policy ones. He was generous enough when my nomination was up for consideration to help whip GOP votes for me, and his leadership on that was a big part of the reason I got so many of them.
I cherished my opportunities to engage with an American hero as fine as any in the history of our country. He never spared me his wisdom — or his sharp wit. I once told him that I had for the first (and so far, last) time in my life maxed out to a Republican presidential contender to support him in the primaries when he was running against George W. Bush in 2000. His reply: “Norm, you’re not as smart as you look.“
I predict that in the post-Trump era, we will do comprehensive campaign-finance and anti-corruption reform — just like after Watergate. There are already a number of good omnibus proposals, including from the Democratic caucuses in the House and the Senate, and from individual members. (Elizabeth Warren’s package is as far reaching as any ever offered.) I propose we call that eventual legislation to repair the damage of the Trump years and reach for new integrity the McCain Act, for John’s vigorous advocacy of those goals. It would be an even truer tribute to the man than renaming the Russell Senate Office Building.