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RUSTHOVEN: The Ebola crisis gets an operative

October 25, 2014

RusthovenThe developing Ebola situation now has a Hoosier link, with the president’s appointment of Indianapolis native and North Central High School grad Ron Klain as Ebola response coordinator (in media parlance, Ebola czar).

Interesting choice. Highlights of Klain’s resume:

• Senate Judiciary Committee counsel under then-chairman Joe Biden.

• Associate counsel to President Bill Clinton.

• Chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore.

• Head of the 2000 Gore presidential campaign’s Florida recount effort (and portrayed as such by actor Kevin Spacey in the HBO drama “Recount”).

• D.C. lobbyist during the Democratic interregnum between Clinton and Obama, including for Fannie Mae on “regulatory issues.”

• 2008 vice-presidential debate coach for Biden.

• Chief of staff to Vice President Biden.

Quite the Washington insider and political operative, as Klain is aptly described in most news accounts. I say “most” because The New York Times, which deems itself the nation’s newspaper of record, dresses this up as “seasoned crisis-response operative and veteran of Democratic administrations and campaigns,” who is “known for his ability to handle high-stakes and fast-moving political and policy challenges.”

The above list does not omit Klain’s experience and expertise on infectious diseases or in the public health field generally. He has none.

The White House doesn’t pretend otherwise. But not to worry. Klain has “extensive experience in overseeing complex governmental operations.” He “helped oversee implementation of the Recovery Act, a major interagency and intergovernmental project.” Indeed, “under Klain’s watch,” the team “met and exceeded the plan for deploying the stimulus on time, in a complex interagency scenario involving almost every agency of the federal government.”

Translation: Klain doled out stimulus money, and did so quickly. The “quickly” is debatable—Obama joked a while ago that stimulus projects weren’t all that “shovel ready”—but never mind.

I have no doubt Ron Klain is a very smart, talented individual who knows his way around Washington, the kind of person for whom the adjective “savvy” was invented. We have some on the GOP side (Karl Rove comes to mind) and I wish we had more.

But choosing Klain to head the federal Ebola response speaks volumes about Obama’s perspective on this challenge. As with opposition to Obamacare, which he attributed to his failure to explain things often enough to an uncomprehending public, the president thinks criticism of his Ebola efforts reflects poor “messaging.”

Brit Hume is right: Klain’s appointment “shows the administration thinks this is more of a political and public relations problem than it is a public health problem.” As even the Times noted (quoting “an anonymous Democratic political operative” on Klain’s selection), “if anybody can get the way this is being reported and discussed under control in a short period of time, he’s the one.”

All of us hope Klain succeeds. But the success for which we hope entails getting “under control” the Ebola threat itself, as opposed to “the way this is being reported and discussed.”

The Republican equivalent of Obama’s picking Klain to lead the administration’s Ebola response efforts would have been George W. Bush’s naming Rove to handle Hurricane Katrina relief.

Had Bush done so, one suspects The New York Times would not have blandly called Rove a “seasoned crisis-response operative and veteran of Republican administrations and campaigns, known for his ability to handle high-stakes and fast-moving political and policy challenges.”•

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Rusthoven, an Indianapolis attorney and graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, was associate counsel to President Reagan. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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