Norm Eisen just delivered one of the best talks I have ever heard in the Watson Institute.
By following his work, I knew that he was smart, ethical, and courageous, but I did not expect that he would have done what the best presentations do: fuse apparent contradictions into transcendent vision. Eisen did just that in presenting a view of our particular nation in the most universal of terms, even while celebrating the even more particular Brown University to which we are both tied.
Eisen recalled his time at Brown, his work in the infirmary where he could study more than by laboring in the library. He evoked the spirit of Brown’s commitment to liberal values, in the sense of scholarly reason and deep reflection while acknowledging that liberalism also having something of a political accent. But I would defy anyone to brand this talk as necessarily liberal in the partisan sense, especially given his career and more recent commitments.
With his work as litigator, he has represented many different interests. It is clear, of course, that he does live in the Democratic Party’s side of the nation, having served as the “ethics tsar” for the Obama White House, and then as Ambassador to the Czech Republic during that presidency. But given his partnership with Richard Painter, the ethics tsar for George W. Bush, even that partisan identification fades before a vision of America defined by bipartisanship on the most vital issues before the nation.
Painter and Eisen defined that vital issue most recently by asking whether our president is a criminal with his obstruction of justice. Of course this also builds on their prior work in launching a suit against Trump for violating the emoluments clause of the Constitution. While the Supreme Court has not ruled as to whether the US President enjoys sovereign immunity, Eisen today noted that the brief for denying that immunity is already complete with the work of Leon Jaworski in US v Nixon. As such, Eisen finds that litigation, rather than impeachment, is a more likely course to save US from the cancer Trump’s leadership brings to the notion of public service and its consequent disdain for the Constitution.
The preceding reflection could have been moved by following Norm Eisen’s work and learning trajectory, but what floored me was his ability to move beyond the litigator’s spirit to one animated by love, something I don’t usually associate with lawyers’ public ways.
One reason this talk was so profound was that it was not only about the fate of the nation, but very much a personal story about Eisen and his family. He came to Brown from a humble southern Californian lifestyle with profound trauma in background; his mother lost family exiled to Auschwitz. A Holocaust survivor herself, she was also a student of history, of the world, and she worried to her son that the end of the Cold War could be dangerous: without an external enemy, we are likely to fight with each other, within our nations. The vitriol with which we see partisan conflict in the USA today was evidence, Eisen mused, that his mother, now gone from this world four years, was right.
His mother also worried about the dangers a reunited Germany would pose to the world, but Eisen’s sense of irony was on full display. In today’s world, it is the leader of that united Germany, Angela Merkel, who stands tallest in support of the liberal values represented by Brown University and the USA at their best. This is testament to, he said, the power of love in the world. In the wake of a defeated Nazi Germany, the USA offered a way to rebuild Germany with the Marshall Plan, to create, in that process, the vital democracy we now see standing up to authoritarians, and for human rights, around the world.
Although I am a fan of love-driven politics, I have frankly never thought of US foreign policy in those terms. But given the trajectory of America First, I need revisit that question, and perhaps with the optimism and hope Eisen brings.
How could he not be an optimist? Eisen asked that very question considering that he became Ambassador to the very lands from which his mother was deported to Auschwitz. He lived in Prague’s US Embassy mansion, built by a Jewish magnate, but during WWII occupied by the very Nazi authorities responsible for the death of his mother’s family. As Ambassador, he lived in that house, remaking it with articles of his own Jewish faith.
Evil certainly exists in this world, but we can triumph over it. His religiosity in such optimism is apparent, but his belief appears to center less on God’s design than on his reverence for the Constitution and the brilliance of its designers.
I am myself an optimist, but nothing like him. I am worried, frankly, that we in the USA are on the road to Hell, but Eisen has greater faith than I in the power of our Constitution, and in its consequent checks and balances. He seems certain that our Courts, and our Fourth Estate, will prevent the crash of democracy so many more skeptical commentators anticipate. He could even point to evidence this morning of that very fact: the White House has backed down from its own attack on transparency in ethics rules.
Perhaps more controversially, he also considers those leaking accounts of Trump’s possibly criminal behavior to be the descendants of Daniel Ellsberg in spirit if not in identical practice. In our US tradition, civil disobedience should be followed by willingness to accept the punishment for ethical, even if illegal, behavior; it is the compromise enabling the rule of law to persevere. But today, the costs of that violation are too great to enable leakers to step forward. That, to my mind as well, is a system problem that needs address more than a problem of individual wrongdoing.
Eisen certainly, with his celebration of the brilliance of our Constitution and the courage of those who would defend it and the system of checks and balances it sanctifies, could conclude with hope. But his response to one question from the floor was ominous.
For those who are distressed by the rule of Trump and its assault on the rule of law and constitutionality, they might consider an even greater nightmare question: what type of governance will follow the times of Trump?
I have greater hope for that future now having seen not only the results of Norm Eisen’s work, but his living character. Indeed, he himself represents the greatest fusion of spirits we need: to be able to look danger squarely in the eye with the spirit that also might find its transcendence.
That may be why, in the end, that he does not say he is anti-Trump. He is “pro-constitution”.
After today, so am I.