Ron Klain is the guy embattled Democrats want by their side.
President Bill Clinton sent Klain, who was 32 at the time, over to the Justice Department back in 1994 to help out struggling Attorney General Janet Reno. Al Gore dispatched Klain to Florida to shepherd the tense 2000 recount effort when the presidency was on the line. President Barack Obama hired him to be Ebola czar when panic over the virus gripped the United States.
Now, the 59-year old Indiana Hoosier-turned-Washington-insider is favored for the job that's often considered the second-most powerful gig in the federal government.
President-elect Joe Biden is widely expected to announce in the coming days that Klain will be his White House chief of staff starting on January 20. Even if Biden opts for someone else for the chief of staff role, Klain is expected to be one of his top White House advisers, Democratic sources tell Insider.
Biden and Klain go way back. Klain worked as chief counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee from 1989 until 1992, when Biden chaired the powerful panel that handles all lifetime appointments to federal courts. When Biden won the vice presidency in 2008, he quickly picked Klain again to be his White House chief of staff.
If Klain gets the White House job, he will serve as gatekeeper to the president, oversee about 4,000 political aides, and advise the commander-in-chief on just about every critical policy decision that's made. It's not a job for the faint-hearted: Chiefs of staff typically burn out after a few years or get mashed up in the machinery of presidential politics. Donald Trump cycled through four of them in his single term; Obama went through five during his eight years in office.
The chief of staff also sets the tone for a new White House. Obama's choice of Rahm Emanuel in 2008 was characterized as the president-elect bringing onboard "a fiery partisan who doesn't mind breaking glass and hurting feelings."
That's not Klain's style. He doesn't back down on disagreements, but he's no bomb thrower. He's got decades of experience navigating relationships with Republicans, managing high-profile scandals, and whipping votes on Capitol Hill. His friends say he's got much in common with Biden, who campaigned and won on a platform to bridge divides and calm the political storm in the United States after a tumultuous four years under Trump.
"However you would characterize Joe Biden, you can probably characterize Ron Klain," said Jamie Gorelick, who worked with Klain at the Justice Department in the 1990s where she was deputy attorney general.
"He worked for Joe Biden at the outset of his career, and he's working for him now, and he's worked for him off and on for decades. And he is very much like the vice president," she added.
'Much calmer than Rahm'
No one in Biden's orbit is surprised that the president-elect would be considering Klain for the high-powered but high-pressured job.
"He has a great reputation. Smart as hell," said Chris Dodd, a former Connecticut senator and Biden ally who helped with the selection of Kamala Harris as the vice presidential running mate.
Klain knows how the government works, and he's familiar with key players in Congress and the nation's sitting governors, whom Biden will need come January as he tackles the dueling once-in-a-lifetime crises of a deadly pandemic and a battered economy.
One thing going for Klain is that he has Biden's trust, which longtime politicos say is the most important attribute in a chief of staff. They also point to Klain's unique ability to explain complicated subjects, stay calm in a crisis, and game out political problems before they arise.
"He's very calm. He's great in a crisis. He doesn't get hysterical," said Elaine Kamarck, who worked with Klain in the Clinton White House and on Gore's 2000 presidential campaign.
If tapped for the position, Klain is expected to have a very different style than some of the more overtly aggressive chiefs of staff who came before him. Emanuel, for example, gained renown for his creative use of expletives, while former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta had a reputation inside the White House for his angry alter ego "Skippy" whenever he lost his temper.
"He is certainly much calmer than Rahm," Gorelick said. "Rahm yelled at me. I don't recall Ron ever yelling at me, and I think there are lots of people who would say both of those things."
Klain did not respond to an interview request for this story.
Klain has been an outside adviser during Biden's presidential campaign. He defended the Democratic nominee during cable news appearances and stayed in regular communication with the former vice president, according to sources close to Klain. He also had a front row seat to Biden's victory speech in Delaware on Saturday night.
The Harvard-trained attorney's most public involvement with the campaign came in a March video Biden released that features the former Obama Ebola czar hammering Trump's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the 4-plus minute presentation, Klain's nerdy and professorial style comes across as he scribbles out Biden's plans to respond to the crisis with a whiteboard and a marker.
His status as Democrats' public health guru dates back to late 2014, when Obama picked Klain to be the White House's Ebola response coordinator as the virus ravaged West Africa and amid panic closer to home over a possible Ebola outbreak. Klain worked closely with infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci during that time but left the White House gig early the next year when fears in the US had died down.
Republicans fumed at the time over Klain's lack of public health expertise.
"We don't need another so-called 'czar'; we need presidential leadership," Sen. Ted Cruz said at the time. "This is a public health crisis, and the answer isn't another White House political operative."
A Saturday Night Live sketch spoofed Klain with a fake C-SPAN stream showing actor Taran Killam standing behind a podium, pretending to be the president's Ebola advisor. An actress playing a reporter asks whether it's true he has no medical training. Killam-as-Klain replies, "That is true. I am not a doctor. But to be fair, I did serve as chief of staff for Vice President Joe Biden, so I do have some experience with a little something called foot-in-mouth disease."
Klain's friends say the criticism lacked merit because the job involved bringing together top public health experts to work effectively together, not necessarily being one himself.
"Ron understands what makes government work and how to bring together the disparate elements needed to get things done," said Matt Gerson, who worked with Klain on the Senate Judiciary Committee and is now a consultant to the investment firm Revolution LLC, where Klain has served as executive vice president and general counsel.
Klain "didn't start out as an Ebola expert," Gerson said, but by the time he was finished he was because he tapped into the health experts across the government. "His ability to absorb information is a gift for somebody who has to tackle big problems."
'We can win this'
Klain has been a key behind-the-scenes player in Washington's power circles for decades, working with just about every Democratic power broker and seeing along the way where all the Democrats' skeletons are buried.
He clerked for Supreme Court Justice Byron White, a John F. Kennedy appointee, before he went to work for Biden in the Senate and then moved over to the Clinton White House. He's married to Monica Medina, another longtime government official who was an Obama appointee to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Klain has inspired magazine profiles dating back at least to 1994, when the White House transferred the 35-year-old rising star in Democratic politics over to the Justice Department to help Attorney General Janet Reno.
As the first woman attorney general, Reno arrived at DOJ as a rising star in Clinton's orbit. But the longtime former federal prosecutor from Miami had a rocky relationship with the White House thanks to some early missteps and management problems at the DOJ. She also faced criticism for authorizing the 1993 federal raid of the Branch Davidians' compound in Waco, Texas, that led to the deaths of more than 75 people.
Reno "was very skilled as a local politician in Miami, but not terribly familiar with Washington," Gorelick told Insider last week. "Ron came over in part to help with that, particularly given that the crime bill, which was a signature piece of legislation in the Clinton administration, was pending."
Klain's arrival marked a "watershed," a White House official told The New Republic a few months after his arrival at the DOJ. That year, he helped score Clinton a victory on the assault weapons ban that wound up in the crime bill.
On the day of the House vote, "the lean/nos started announcing. I started going fetal," Emanuel told the magazine. "Ron was the one who said, 'Actually, we can win this.'"
They drew up a list of House lawmakers to target. Klain convinced then-White House Chief of Staff Mack McLarty and President Clinton to call members on the fence, and he sent police officers to lobby members. The bill narrowly passed.
Klain has had his share of public spats in Washington too.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta privately questioned Klain's loyalty. Klain had been working with Clinton's team, but Biden still hadn't officially decided about his own run yet. While they waited, Clintonworld was abuzz about reports that the vice president might jump into the race to challenge the former first lady.
After a Politico story described Biden strategizing for a possible run, Podesta emailed Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri warning that Klain's "problem is always whether he can be loyal," according to an August 2015 email hacked from Podesta's account by Wikileaks, CBS reported.
Perhaps Klain's most public political rift involved his fight during the 2000 presidential campaign with Gore staffers that preceded his departure from his job as the then-Democratic vice president's White House chief of staff.
It's a theme featured in "Recount," HBO's 2008 movie about the Florida recount where Kevin Spacey plays Klain.
Klain reportedly clashed with Gore's campaign chairman, former California Democratic congressman Tony Coelho, while he continued to work as an advisor to Gore. Still, Gore picked Klain to help lead his legal team in Florida when it became clear that the Sunshine State's electoral votes would decide who won the presidential election.
More than two decades later, people close to both Klain and Gore remain reluctant to discuss the tensions surrounding Klain's White House exit. One source who has worked with both of them said neither Gore nor Klain have ever brought the issue up.
Barry Richard, a Florida attorney who represented George W. Bush during the Florida recount in 2000, called Klain a "gentleman and a professional" who's classy to his opponents. Richard recalled a moment during the middle of the recount chaos when he was celebrating a wedding anniversary with his wife. Gore's lawyers, including Klain, toasted them despite the bitter battle playing out in court.
"We all got along," Richard said. "The fact is, times were different then."