Chief -of-Staff Ron Klain— A Major Player Behind the Nomination of President Biden’s Judges July 27, 2021
Chris Whipple’s 2017 book, “The Gatekeepers,” could not have been better titled. It correctly argues that the chief-of-staff (COS) is the most important appointment a U.S. President can make. According to Whipple and others knowledgeable about the Presidency, who gets appointed COS can make or break a President. The COS takes responsibility for determining just what documents the President gets to see and prevents the Chief Executive from being overwhelmed with too much trivial and irrelevant paperwork. The COS determines which people get scheduled to have meetings with the POTUS (President of the United States) and for how long during his super-busy workdays. According to Leon Panetta, a COS who served Bill Clinton, the COS must also “be the person that says ‘no.’ You’ve got to be the SOB who basically tells somebody what the President can’t tell him.” Often surrounded by “yes people,” and individuals too afraid of the power POTUS holds, the COS has to “be the one in charge, the go-to guy who can get into the Oval Office and deliver a very tough message to the president,” according to Dick Cheney. Cheney served as Gerald Ford’s COS and later became W Bush’s super-powerful Vice President (See Whipple). Having no COS in modern times is a recipe for failure. Jimmy Carter did not want to have a COS. When he finally decided to have one, he first picked the completely inept Hamilton Jordan. At the end of his term, Carter put Jack Watson in that post. Watson is considered by many to have been one of the top White House Chief of Staffs. Had he been with Carter at the beginning of his term, Carter may have been more organized, better focused on issues, and might have avoided defeat by Ronald Reagan (See Whipple). Reagan himself realized that he needed a top COS who knew more about D.C. than he did. Reagan picked for his first COS James Baker, an extremely organized fellow. Jim Baker was well versed in the doings of the legislative and executive branch and knowledgeable about most political issues. When Baker became Treasury Secretary at the beginning of Reagan’s second term, Don Regan, the new COS, was completely unsuited to this post. Regan’s poor judgment entangled him in the Iran-Contra scandal that nearly destroyed Reagan’s presidency. Only another COS, former Sen. Howard Baker (no relation to Jim Baker), pulled Reagan out of this mess. Bill Clinton started out with his kindergarten friend Thomas “Mack” McLarty, a fellow too nice and unversed in D.C. culture. He was unable to keep Clinton organized. When Leon Panetta took over after McClarty left, he brought order to Clinton’s White House. He was instrumental, according to many, in helping get Clinton re-elected to a second term (See Whipple). When a COS has worked with a President in D.C. for many years both in Congress and in the Executive Branch, a new administration often starts on a good footing. In this situation, the COS and POTUS need no introductions and are able to communicate seamlessly. And when this COS has had much experience in several major areas, including handling federal judicial nominations, that’s even better. In selecting Klain as his COS, Pres. Biden has “hit the political jackpot.”
Indianapolis, IN native Ronald Klain (59) is a superstar in the interaction of modern politics and the various levers of the federal government. His father was a building contractor and mother a travel agent. Klain graduated summa cum laude from Georgetown University in D.C., the alma mater of Bill Clinton and late Supreme Ct. Justice Antonin “Nino” Scalia. In 1987, Klain received his law degree from Harvard Law school where he graduated magna cum laude (See politics. georgetown.edu/ron-klain/). From 1983-1984, Klain served as legislative director to then U.S. Representative, now Senator Ed Markey, D-MA (politico.com, 7/19/13). During the 1987 and 1988 terms, Klain was a law clerk to U.S. Supreme Ct. Justice Byron White. Supreme Ct. law clerks are top-ranking law school graduates who often decide what cases the High Court hears, do research for the Justices, and help draft their opinions (Peppers, “Courtiers Of The Marble Palace,”2006). In 1988, Klain assisted Joe Biden’s speechwriting team during Biden’s first unsuccessful presidential run (Cramer, R., “What It Takes,” 1992). From 1989-1992, Klain served as Chief Counsel to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee then chaired by Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE). In that position, Klain oversaw the legal staff’s work on constitutional, criminal, and antitrust law. He also worked with them in overseeing Supreme Ct. nominations, including the 1991 Clarence Thomas one (washingtonpost.com, 1/08/19).
Klain joined the Clinton-Gore campaign in 1992 and also worked for Clinton’s re-election in 1996 (wash.post.com, 1/08/19). In the Clinton White House, Klain was Associate Counsel to the President where he oversaw and directed judicial nominations and selection efforts. When Justice White retired, he asked former clerk Klain to visit his chambers. White then gave Klain his resignation letter to take to Clinton (cnn.com, Biskupic, 11/12/20). Klain led the team that won confirmation of White’s successor-- Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (wash.post.com, 1/08/19). In 1994, Klain became Chief of Staff and Counselor to Atty. General Janet Reno. In 1995, Klain became Chief of Staff (COS) to VP Al Gore (time.com, Miller & Rothman, 12/05/14). He served as Gore’s COS even after the launch of Gore’s presidential campaign. In 8/1999, Klain resigned to join the D.C. office of powerhouse law firm O’Melveny & Myers (apnews.com). In the 2000 election, Klain became General Counsel of Gore’s Recount Committee where he oversaw the 11-12/2000 recount of FL votes. In the controversial 5-4 “Bush vs. Gore” opinion, the Supreme Ct. declared W Bush the winner (hls.harvard.edu, 1/09/19). Klain did lobbying work for the financial giant Fannie Mae (wash.post, Mosk, 11/15/08). In 2004, Klain worked heavily behind the scenes in John Kerry’s unsuccessful presidential campaign against W Bush (usatoday. Com, Kasendorf & Benedetto, 9/27/04). In 2005, Klain left his law partnership at O’Melveny to become Executive Vice President and General Counsel of Revolution LLC, a technology venture capital firm launched by AOL co-founder Steve Case (hls.harvard.edu).
In 2008, Klain was one of the people who assisted Obama in preparation for debating GOP Sen. John McCain (Obama, “A Promised Land,” 2020). On 11/12/2008, “Roll Call” announced that Klain had been chosen to serve as COS to then VP-elect Joe Biden (Koffler, 11/12/08). Klain left that post in 1/2011 and returned to Revolution LLC where he helped Steve Case and his wife administer the Case Foundation (wash.post.com, Thomas, 1/05/11). On 10/17/2014, Klain was appointed the “Ebola response coordinator” or Ebola “czar.” Although Klain had no prior experience with public health matters or Ebola, pundit Ezra Klein praised this appointment for Klain’s bureaucratic experience with coordinating agencies (vox.com, 10/17/14, nymag.com). Klain handled this job well and left this post in 2/2015.
Having dealt with Ebola, Klain served during the 2020 Biden campaign as an advisor on the COVID-19 pandemic. He correctly told “Wired” that, “if we’re going to make COVID-19 go away, we’re going to need a very high vaccination rate. The number one public health challenge of 2021 is going to be getting people to take the vaccine (wired.com).” On 11/11/2020, president-elect Biden announced that Klain would be his White House COS (nytimes.com, Shear, Glueck, Haberman, & Kaplan, 11/12/20). Klain will be the 5th Jewish presidential COS, which also gives him strong connections to a key group in Democratic and national politics (See Whipple, “The Gatekeepers”). Again, IMHO, no one has anywhere near the varied background and strengths of Biden’s new COS.
As was previously stated, judicial selections will be front and center, which Biden and Klain have immediately recognized. Biden and Klain understood that even though he was also an attorney, former Democratic President Obama was rightfully accused of acting too slowly and did not push hard for the federal judicial nominees he put forward. Too many of his nominees were delayed or blocked by Senate GOPers, especially Mitch McConnell (R-KY) when he was both Senate Minority and Majority Leader (See vox. com, Milhiser, 1/20/21). Biden and his COS Klain will not allow such judicial delay “on their watch.” Both Biden and Klain saw how Trump and Majority Leader McConnell ran a GOP judicial “conveyor belt.” The two of them appointed more than 200 federal judges and three Supreme Court Justices during Trump’s 4-year term. Federal judges, remember, are appointed for life and serve long after a president leaves office. Biden, with Klain’s help, is similarly working with present Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) at an even more rapid pace than McConnell to push through judicial appointments for vacant federal seats. Six months into Biden’s presidency, eight of his judicial nominees have been confirmed, more than any other president at the same point in the last 50 years (Sullivan, K., cnn.com, 7/21/21). In addition to their top legal qualifications, Biden has, with Klain’s assistance, appointed nominees that reflect the full diversity of the American people. Many are women and people of color. In 6/2021, the Democratic Senate approved the first Muslim federal court judge in U.S. history (cnn.com, Sullivan). On 7/19/2021, the Senate, by a 63-33 vote, confirmed Tiffany Cunningham, Biden’s eighth appointed judge. Cunningham will serve as the first black judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. This court, created in 1982, deals with the intricacies of patent law. It is the only appellate level court other than the Supreme Court with jurisdiction to hear patent case appeals (cafc.uscourts.gov). Cunningham graduated from MIT with an engineering degree and received a Harvard Law degree in 2001. From 2014-2021, she was a partner at the influential Perkins Coie firm in Chicago and a member of its patent litigation practice (whitehouse.gov, 3/30/21).
Both Biden and Klain work in tandem on selecting these judicial nominees and clearly bring a wealth of knowledge to this process. While Klain and Biden along with Majority Leader Schumer and his 51-Democratic majority have quickly been filling federal trial or District Courts and Circuit Court of Appeals vacancies, they have yet to appoint a SCOTUS (Supreme Ct. of the United States) nominee. Should Stephen Breyer (82), appointed by Bill Clinton retire in the near future, Biden and Klain, will immediately be ready with a replacement. Klain has been at the center of filling SCOTUS vacancies for the past three decades and Biden is no stranger to SCOTUS selections and confirmations (See cnn.com, Sullivan, 7/21/21). One of Biden’s recently confirmed Circuit Court of Appeals judges, Ketanji Brown Jackson, is seen as a very strong pick to fill a Breyer vacancy. Jackson clerked for Justice Breyer from 1999-2000. She is also African American. During his presidential campaign, Biden stated that he would fill his next SCOTUS vacancy with a black woman. Hopefully, Breyer will retire while the Senate remains in Democratic hands. Mitch McConnell would, therefore, be unable to block Breyer’s replacement. When Neil Gorsuch, a former Anthony Kennedy law clerk, was appointed to the SCOTUS bench by Trump, many analysts saw this as a signal that Kennedy would soon be happy to retire. Kennedy also heard the rumors that another former clerk of his, Brett Kavanaugh, would get his seat. Kennedy quickly decided to retire and Kavanaugh won his seat.
Again, one learns a lot about the caliber of a President from his appointments, especially whom he picks for COS. Biden’s smooth functioning and high achieving administration owes much to his A++ selection of Ron Klain.