Gitenstein sworn in

Published 11:59 pm Thursday, August 6, 2009

It’s official – Mark Henry Gitenstein is the new ambassador to Romania.

The Florala native, who was nominated for the post in June, was sworn into office this week by Vice President Joe Biden in the Indian Treaty Room of the Eisenhower Executive Building, where the Office of the Vice President is located.

A host of U.S. and Romanian officials and a multitude of Gitenstein’s family, including his wife, Elizabeth; his three children, his grandchildren, his sisters, nieces, nephews and a cousin attended the ceremony. The only person missing from the group was his father, Seymour, a resident of Florala Health and Rehab.

And while Gitenstein’s father’s physical presence might have been absent, he was never far from the new ambassador’s thoughts. He went so far as to address his father in his closing statements Monday.

“It is not only a great honor to represent President Obama, but it is also a return to the place from which over a century ago my grandparents came to America, and it is to them that I today pay tribute – to my great-grandfather Lewis Bralower, and my great-grandmother, Celia Bralower, to my grandmother Rose Bralower and especially to my father, Seymour Gitenstein,” Gitenstein said during his address.

“At 94, he still lives in my hometown of Florala, Ala.,” he said. “I saw him the weekend before last, and the essential quality I see in him I see in those who live in Romania today – a tough, resilient, determined people who have been through a lot but who have never lost their sense of humor and their love of life.”

On Thursday, Gitenstein described his swearing in as a “powerful moment.”

“Not simply because my friend, the vice president, was swearing me in, but because I was thinking of my father,” he said. “He couldn’t be there because he is now pretty much restricted to the nursing home, but if it wasn’t for these two men I wouldn’t have been given this privilege: Vice President Biden because he recommended me to the president and my father because he instilled in me the commitment to public service that led me to Washington in the first place.”

Gitenstein said he was also thinking of his great grandparents and the circumstances that led them to leave Romania and come to America.

“We have had diplomatic relations with Romania for 130 years, since about the time my grandparents left Romania,” he said. “Think what it tells you about America and Romania that now for the first time a Jewish Romanian American is returning to Romania and is being so well received there and that the two countries have such a close relationship.”

As ambassador, Gitenstein said he had been given very clear instructions from the president.

“To strengthen and deepen our alliance – to help Romanians recover from (a) recession, primarily by increasing U.S. trade with and investment in Romania – which will mean at least in part by increasing transparency, the rule of law and regulatory and administrative reform.”

Gitenstein concluded his speech by using President Obama’s campaign slogan – “Yes, we can.”

In Covington County, the Gitenstein family is credited with establishing the Florala Memorial Hospital and touching countless lives through scholarships and philanthropic donations.

Mark Gitenstein lived in Florala until the age of 14 before moving to Birmingham to complete high school. He attended Duke University and later earned a law degree from Georgetown University.

He was a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, where he specialized in issues related to national security and civil liberties. He was also a partner at the Washington office of the multi-national firm Mayer Brown LLP. Prior to his work at Mayer Brown, he was the executive director of The Foundation for Change Inc.

Previously, he worked as a Senate staff member for 17 years — both in then Sen. Biden’s personal office, and then as chief counsel with the Senate Judiciary Committee. He is the author of Matters of Principle, an award-winning book on his experience managing the Judiciary Committee staff during the confirmation battle over the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987.