WASHINGTON – Ron Klain keeps a framed certificate of appreciation from Dr. Anthony Fauci on the red walls of his home office just outside Washington, D.C.
It’s a testament to, in Fauci’s words, Klain’s “extraordinary efforts” fighting alongside the nation’s top infectious disease expert during the 2014 Ebola outbreak. The crisis proved far less deadly than the coronavirus pandemic but exposed weaknesses in the nation’s ability to respond to a public health emergency.
Klain referred to the certificate – and emphasized the imperative of following the advice of scientists like Fauci – during a virtual discussion with the congregation of his hometown synagogue in Indianapolis last April, about three weeks into the coronavirus lockdowns.
He warned that the pandemic would get much worse.
The death toll from the virus had already topped 5,000 in the United States. Now it’s more than 277,000.
“This is a horrible natural event,” Klain, wearing a dark suit jacket and red tie, said as he leaned into his computer’s camera. “But the outcome is shaped by human beings.”
Klain’s leadership on Ebola and his work with then-Vice President Joe Biden on the 2009 economic stimulus during the Great Recession were central to Biden’s selection of Klain as his incoming White House chief of staff.
“The combination, it’s unique to him,” said Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. “There’s only one person out of 330 million people (who was in the room for both). And it’s Ron Klain.”
But, as the vilification and death threats that Fauci faced during the 2020 campaign showed, expert credentials are not an automatic ticket to getting buy-in from the public amid stark political polarization on issues from local coronavirus restrictions to even voluntary mask-wearing.
That was also one of the lessons learned halfway through President Barack Obama’s first year in office in 2009 when Klain and other administration officials felt they had averted economic disaster, but were frustrated that they didn’t necessarily get plaudits for it – and that parts of the rescue plan stirred a backlash.
“We didn’t successfully persuade the American people that this was an effective program,” Klain, who declined an interview request, told Obama adviser David Axelrod in a 2016 podcast interview. “And so we paid a political price for that.”
Klain, 59, may be the most prepared White House chief of staff in recent times, especially for the twin health and economic crises facing the country.
But as he steps into the powerful position that previously eluded him despite a stellar career, Klain also knows what it’s like to lose a few.
One quality Klain shares with Biden, said former Democratic National Committee chairman Joe Andrew, is “found humility.”
“You’re a better president if you’ve lost an election than if you just win them all,” Andrew said. “And you’re a better chief of staff if you’ve lost some things than if you win them all, because you know what the stakes are.”
Klain’s career is studded with accomplishments across all three branches of government: clerk to Supreme Court Justice Byron White; the youngest counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee; chief of staff for two vice presidents, Biden and Al Gore.
“Whenever you have a really tough job, people say, ‘Ron’s the person for that,’” said former Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly. “He is someone who is no drama, but at the same time, drills way down, gets it done right. Gets it done on time.”
Klain had hoped, however, to serve as Obama’s chief of staff after Rahm Emanuel left but was passed over.
Klain likely would have had another shot at that elusive top staff job had Hillary Clinton won in 2016, a campaign Klain started to work on before Biden – his longtime boss and friend – had ruled out a bid.
When Gore ran in 2000, Klain was initially pushed out of the campaign before being brought back and then leading the ultimately unsuccessful Florida recount. After the HBO movie “Recount” came out in 2008, Klain’s three children jokingly renamed him the “weary loser,” mimicking a movie reviewer’s description of his character as portrayed by Kevin Spacey.
“I’ve seen great ups and great downs, and successes and failures,” Klain told Georgetown University students during a 2013 forum.
‘Rare sense of self’
Valerie Jarrett, who forged a close friendship with Obama long before becoming his adviser in the White House, said Klain’s history with the president-elect means they can be frank with each other.
“One of the many important qualities for a chief of staff is to be able to tell the most powerful person in the world when you disagree with them and Ron can do that in a way where his tone is easy to take,” Jarrett said. “And that will set the tone for the rest of the team and how they should treat one another.”
When it comes to combating the pandemic, in particular, political scientist Philip Klinkner at Hamilton College said Klain’s management style would mark a sharp contrast to the “very chaotic process” around President Donald Trump, whose administration has been marked by frequent staff shakeups, including in the chief of staff job, and policy shifts that are sometimes abruptly announced via Twitter.
Klain will be working closely with Fauci who, on Thursday, accepted Biden’s invitation to serve as chief medical adviser and be part of the administration’s COVID-19 response team.
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Denis McDonough, one of Obama’s former chiefs of staff who now teaches at the University of Notre Dame, attributes some of Klain’s skills as a coalition builder and low-key problem solver to the Indiana roots he’s proud of, and still nurtures, decades after leaving his home state.
“He has a rare sense of self,” McDonough said, “and a rare sense of where he comes from.”
Born and raised in Indianapolis where he was a fourth-generation member of the Congregation Beth-El Zedeck, Klain did not grow up in a political family. His father owned a plumbing supply business. His mother was a travel agent.
“We were always interested in what was going on in the world,” said his mother, Sarann Klain Warner, “but nobody that Ron is related to ever had, or wanted to have, a career in politics.”
That changed in the spring of 1968 when Robert F. Kennedy, competing in Indiana’s Democratic presidential primary, was looking for an inner-city business as a backdrop for a campaign commercial.
An advance man chose the warehouse that Klain’s father had recently opened in an area undergoing revitalization.
Klain was seven when he shook Kennedy’s hand and heard him speak. The event transformed him.
“After that, that’s all he talked about, that he wanted to work in politics,” Warner said.
A few weeks later, at a nearby inner city playground, Kennedy would deliver a poignant plea for peace and racial harmony after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Kennedy’s speech is credited with helping prevent in Indianapolis the destructive riots that broke out across the country.
Klain’s father told him that his business was still standing and undamaged because of the man he had met. When he grew up, Klain would think of that speech whenever someone would say a politician’s words don’t matter.
For college, Klain chose Georgetown, where he could combine academic pursuits with hands-on political experience. He’d already interned for Indiana Sen. Birch Bayh and, before finishing college, worked on Bayh’s 1980 campaign.
Markey hired Klain to work in his then-House office in the 1980s after he’d come recommended as “the smartest young political mind of his generation.”
It didn’t take long for Markey to understand why.
After he gave Klain a book about long-term economic planning in the United States in preparation for a meeting, Klain read it overnight and turned in a three-page summary that impressed both Markey and the professor who’d written the book.
“He has an ability to take voluminous amounts of information and to reduce it to a form which is politically usable in the shortest period of time that I’ve ever encountered with any person in politics,” Markey said.
Klain’s reputation as a rising star continued after he graduated at the top of his class from Harvard Law School, clerked for Justice White and became chief counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee which Biden headed.
“The sort of buzz amongst the interns was, ‘Oh my God! That’s Ron Klain! He’s really super smart,’” remembers Delaware Sen. Chris Coons who, as a law student, interned on the committee. “And he was approachable.”
While Klain worked for Biden, the committee conducted the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justices David Souter and Clarence Thomas. Klain would go on to have a lead role in the confirmations of four more justices – Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan – in jobs in the Clinton and Obama administrations.
At age 31, Klain became Gore’s chief of staff.
Gore called Klain “one of the most trusted and capable advisers I have ever worked with.”
“He was always highly informed,” Gore said in a statement to USA TODAY, “and his advice was always grounded in an exceptional command of the policy process, the merits of the arguments and the political and justice context.”
But when Tony Coehlo, head of Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, overhauled the team, Klain was among those who left.
Klain never expressed anger or disappointment, according to Andrew, the former head of the Democratic National Committee, who is friends with Klain.
“When asked to come back and help, he just did so,” Andrew said.
It was a big ask.
When Florida’s 2000 vote for president was too close to call, Klain took charge of the campaign’s recount effort.
“I’ve always admired that he came back after that. A lot of people would have said ‘screw you,’” said Bob Blaemire, a former Birch Bayh aide who has known Klain since he was a teenager. Blaemire said he can’t stress enough what a genuinely nice guy Klain is.
“That is really important,” Blaemire said, “because I know a lot of people that are pricks in this business. And Ron is not.”
‘Get over it’
In Florida, Klain was tasked with putting together a law firm on the fly, recalls Chris Sautter, a recount expert who arrived to help the day after the election. There was no furniture and only a few phone lines in the campaign’s rented office space in a mostly abandoned strip mall.
The campaign had 72 hours from the time the polls closed to request a manual recount.
Klain, Sautter said, kept things under control “in an environment that was more chaotic than almost any other I’ve experienced.” Fielding divergent views on whether to seek a recount statewide or only in certain areas, Klain would ask probing questions, often without revealing where he stood and without allowing the debate to get bogged down in a back and forth, according to Sautter.
It’s clear, however, what Klain thinks of the Supreme Court’s decision to stop the recount, making George W. Bush president. After Justice Antonin Scalia, the author of the controversial opinion, later urged critics to “Get over it,” Klain would deliver a rejoinder every time he ran into Scalia at public events.
“I’m not over it. I’ll never be over it. We shouldn’t be over it as a country,” Klain said in the 2016 podcast interview. “And he was always good natured about that.”
Back with Biden
Klain reprised his role as vice presidential chief of staff in 2009, this time for Biden.
“I think I have a little better perspective on how to do the job and a little more life experience, too,” Klain told the IndyStar in 2008.
The economy was in freefall after the housing market’s collapse triggered a recession. Klain helped Biden oversee the distribution of the 2009 stimulus, almost a trillion dollars that needed to get out the door pronto.
Jarrett, the Obama senior adviser, called the Recovery Act a herculean task to coordinate, not just among federal agencies but also among governors, mayors and the private sector recipients of the funds.
“I can’t overemphasize how hard it is to get people who do not work directly for you, and who have not worked together before, to actually sit in a room and work together,” Jarrett said.
McDonough described watching Klain and Biden, and sometimes Klain and Obama, diving deep into whatever issue they were working on.
“These are guys that really dig into the substance – and I say this with abiding admiration – like a group of nerds,” he said.
Later reviews of the stimulus contracts awarded found almost no waste or fraud. But there was also little political bounce.
In his new memoir, Obama wrote that he found himself wondering whether “I’d failed to tell the American people a story they could believe in; and whether, having ceded the political narrative to my critics, I was going to be able to wrest it back.”
Obama had another problem when he fared poorly against Mitt Romney in their first debate. Klain had left the White House for an investment firm but was a go-to Democrat for debate preps.
Former Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh said being good at debates requires the ability “to synthesize policy, politics and communications.”
“Ron’s good at all three,” he said.
Yet, Axelrod remembers Klain pacing vigorously during the first 2012 debate exclaiming: “This is a disaster.”
The president’s performance in a rehearsal before the second debate was even worse. Neither Obama nor Klain knew if they could turn things around.
“I’ll remember that morning with him as long as I live because we’d been up most of the night, trying to figure out what it would take to get this right,” Klain told Obama campaign manager David Plouffe in a March podcast discussion.
They ultimately did get it right. And one of Klain’s favorite momentos from the Obama years is a photo of the president with his hand on Klain’s shoulder after coming off the stage of the final faceoff with Romney. Obama, who would never have to debate again, was boasting that he’d “finally figured this out.”
“I always laugh when I think about that moment,” Klain said.
Although Obama had selected others to be his top aide when chiefs of staff moved on, Klain was the president’s first choice to coordinate the administration’s fight against the Ebola virus.
Unlike the coronavirus, Ebola is not spread through casual contact. But it initially had a 70% mortality rate. And some symptoms, such as unexplained hemorrhaging, can be gruesome.
The 2014-2015 outbreak was an international public health emergency. Most of the worldwide 28,652 cases and 11,325 deaths were in three West African countries. But the appearance of Ebola in Dallas from a man who had traveled from West Africa showed that the United States was more vulnerable than most people assumed.
Congressional Republicans attacked Klain’s appointment as Ebola czar, saying the job should go to a health expert.
“The American people can have zero confidence in Ron Klain’s competence to carry out this critical role,” Alabama’s Sen. Jeff Sessions said at the time.
Obama already had top health officials like Fauci working on Ebola and wanted someone who could coordinate the bureaucracy.
Whiteboard tutorials on the COVID-19 pandemic
Overseeing a battle plan for which there were – in Klain’s description – a 1,000 tasks a day, he understood the complexity and cross-cutting nature of the situation down to the smallest details, said Sylvia Burwell, who headed the Department of Health and Human Services. Just moving personal protective equipment across state lines to be incinerated required getting waivers from the Department of Transportation, for example.
“You have to make sure that so many different departments are doing their pieces,” Burwell said. “I think Ron is incredibly talented. I think Ron is incredibly experienced…and a strong leader in terms of being able to think and be ahead and understand the mechanisms of government.”
On just Klain’s third day on the job, Dr. Craig Spencer, who had been fighting the epidemic in West Africa, came back to New York City and was diagnosed with Ebola – after having traveled around the nation’s largest city.
Spencer’s infection was not just a health issue. Obama had also faced political pressure to cut off travel to and from West Africa. But he believed that if the disease wasn’t fought over there, the United States would have more – not fewer – cases.
When the tracking system Spencer followed caught his infection, the relationships Klain had built with New York City’s mayor and the state’s governor helped him quickly tackle the situation, including getting the hospital treating Spencer the necessary expertise.
There were no other diagnoses in the United States.
Klain’s Ebola expertise gave him the stature to criticize the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus, which Klain did in frequent media appearances and in tweeted-out whiteboard tutorials.
Before Klain scribbled the words “testing,” “hospitals,” “gear” and “help” on the board in one video, photos showed him briefing Obama’s team during the Ebola outbreak and meeting with Obama and congressional leaders in the Oval Office.
In addition to helping the Biden campaign form its approach to the pandemic, Klain also offered general strategic advice to his former boss. In August, he took a leave from his investment firm to serve as a full-time, unpaid senior adviser.
“You know, I call on you almost every day for nonpod advice,” Biden told Klain in a March conversation that launched Biden’s campaign podcast.
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Coons said Klain shares with Biden a similar style of collaboration that includes listening to others, developing a plan and executing it without fanfare.
“Something about growing up in a place like Indiana, I think, produces people with low drama, high efficacy, `I can work across the aisle,’ `How do we get to yes?” Coons said of Klain.
‘Kind of a folk hero’
Klain still views himself as a Hoosier, regularly attending the Indy 500, speaking at a nephew’s bar mitzvah, helping Indiana Democrats – although resisting entreaties to put his own name on the ballot.
“I’ve probably asked him to come home and run for office 25 times,” said Indiana attorney Bill Moreau, a former aide to both Birch and Evan Bayh.
At Beth-El Zedeck, where Klain was the male valedictorian of the synagogue’s 1976 confirmation class, he’s “kind of a folk hero,” said Dennis Sasso, the senior rabbi.
“But in the most down-to-earth way, because everybody knows him,” Sasso added, “such a relatable person.”
When the pandemic forced Sasso’s monthly “cocktail Judaism” program to go virtual, he asked Klain to Zoom with the congregation from his home in Chevy Chase, Md. It was the eve of Passover, the Jewish holiday commemorating the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery.
Klain called the Exodus the first example of social distancing. On the night of the final plague God inflicted about the Egyptians, Jews were instructed to stay in their homes.
“There’s a stay-at-home order in the Torah, in the face of a plague,” Klain said. “And that reminds us that throughout human history, we’ve been dealing with these kinds of challenges…and we’ve overcome.”
It was, the rabbi said, “a very hopeful, encouraging message.”
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