Washington does well as the world falls apart
On August 8 the White House chief of staff, Ron Klain, turns 60 years old. It is, writes Mark Leibovich of the New York Times, a much-anticipated event on the D.C. social calendar. Klain, you see, has commemorated earlier “round-numbered birthdays” by throwing large, sumptuous “blowouts,” including a fête at a Maryland farm in 2011 where hundreds of VIPs gathered to eat deep-fried Oreos and deliver “tributes to the honoree.”
Everyone who was anyone in Barack Obama’s Washington was there. One’s absence signified one’s exclusion from the tribe. To know Ron Klain, then, is to have entered the power elite. “Plans for his 60th,” Leibovich continues, “have become such a source of Beltway status anxiety that a small universe of Washington strivers is angling for details: Some have asked White House contacts whether a celebration is in the works and if invitations have gone out.”
Needless to say, I don’t expect to be invited. Nor is there anything wrong with Klain throwing himself a bash: Having just celebrated a “round-numbered” birthday myself, I can attest that there is nothing more fun than gathering a bunch of your family and friends in one place for an evening of food and drink (and more drink).
What struck me instead as I read Leibovich’s slightly tongue-in-cheek profile was the distance between the bourgeois comfort of Klain’s personal and professional life and the facts, as they say, on the ground. One cannot finish reading the Leibovich piece without coming to the conclusion that, all in all, things have worked out pretty darn well for Ron Klain. For America? Not so much.
Klain is the most powerful chief of staff in recent memory, the beating heart of Joe Biden’s White House, a man whose portfolio is so wide-ranging and whose boss is so (let’s face it) odd that Republicans on Capitol Hill refer to him as “Prime Minister Klain.” Like most Washingtonians, he is a well-degreed workaholic, a graduate of Georgetown and Harvard Law School who has spent decades rotating from positions in Democratic administrations to lucrative gigs at the intersection of law, technology, and finance. He calls his expensive home in Chevy Chase, Md., “the house that O’Melveny built,” after legal giant O’Melveny & Myers, where he was a partner from 2001 to 2004.
Among his clients there were AOL Time Warner and Fannie Mae. In 2004 the chairman of AOL Time Warner, billionaire Steve Case, invited Klain to join his D.C.-based venture capital firm, Revolution. Leibovich informs us that Klain’s salary in 2020 was some $2 million. That buys you a lot of hors d’oeuvres.
What Ron Klain actually did in the private sector—besides tweet—is no mystery. By the alchemical process through which influence is manufactured in Washington, he converted his relationships with Democratic power brokers into cash money. “At times,” wrote Michael Scherer in a November 2020 profile for the Washington Post, “Klain appears to have worked with every Democratic leader of the past three decades.” Such a network is worth something to the incalculable number of interests seeking out favors, damages, or relief from the federal government.
And such a network is all the more valuable when it includes a president. In addition to Klain’s smarts and drive, it has been his considerable luck that he has worked for Joe Biden in various capacities since the 1980s. Indeed, the only hiccup in what the Times calls Klain’s “ascension” was his boneheaded, finger-in-the-wind decision to endorse the campaign of the worst presidential candidate in modern history before checking in with Biden first.
When Klain signed on with Hillary Clinton in 2015, Biden had not yet removed himself from consideration for the Democratic nomination. The vice president interpreted Klain’s announcement as an act of disloyalty. Leibovich writes that the rupture with the Biden family, “especially with Jill Biden,” was intense, if relatively brief. Scherer of the Washington Post reports that, after Hillary managed to lose to Donald Trump, another longtime Biden aide, Steve Ricchetti, arranged for Klain to meet with the future president and come to terms. Klain was back on the inside. All was well.
Recent days have offered plenty of evidence of just how good it is to orbit President Biden. The lobbying firm of Steve Ricchetti’s brother Jeff saw a quadruple increase in fees between the first half of 2020 and the first half of 2021, according to the Wall Street Journal. So far this year, Ricchetti Inc. has taken in $1.67 million. “I do not lobby my brother, nor have I lobbied the White House this quarter,” Jeff Ricchetti said in an email to the paper, in one of the most cleverly constructed sentences I have read in a long time.
Surely Jeff Ricchetti understands that Counselor to the President Steve Ricchetti is not the only employee of the executive branch, that “lobbying” is an amorphous term, that the “White House” or Executive Office of the President is just one of innumerable executive and legislative bodies that make policy, and that “this quarter” is only the third of four per year. What did he do in the first two?
Frank Biden, the president’s younger brother, is a senior adviser to the Florida-based Berman Law Group and boastedof his genetic connection to the Oval Office in an Inauguration Day advertisement. As for the president’s son Hunter—well, words fail me. Suffice it to say that Hunter’s latest gambit to profit from his last name, selling his psychedelic abstract expressionist paintings to “anonymous” donors, is such a transparent grift that even big tech isn’t trying to censor criticism of it.
Yes, it’s good to know a president. But what about, you know, the rest of the country? “People in and around the White House describe Mr. Klain as the essential nerve center of an over-circuited administration whose day-to-day doings reflect how this White House works and what it aspires to,” writes Leibovich. What the White House aspires to, it would seem, is continuity and routine: Klain arrives early for work and leaves late, hardly travels with Biden, and spends his hours managing the rickety contraption that is this president’s agenda.
But the “normalcy” of White House operations contrasts sharply with the turbulence buffeting the world outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. On the day Leibovich’s story appeared, for example, markets plunged over fears of the spreading coronavirus variant. Similar fears of inflation and crime are roiling the electorate. The southern border is experiencing the largest surge in illegal migration in 20 years.
On the global stage, the Taliban rampage throughout Afghanistan. Russian and Chinese cyberattacks continue despite Biden’s warnings to Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. The negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program go nowhere fast. For all of Biden’s rhetoric, which itself is often confusing, America is not in a good place.
“Party details for his 60th birthday on Aug. 8 remain elusive,” writes Leibovich, “although there has been talk that Mr. Klain might skip a big gala this summer and do a small family celebration instead on the big day.” I should hope so. The man has a lot of work to do. The Biden circle is living high on the hog while America and the world are coming apart. Prime Minister Klain, call your office.