Obama’s Ebola Czar on What Strong Federal Response Looks Like

A couple of weeks ago, I asked Larry Brilliant , the renowned epidemiologist who helped eradicate smallpox, what is the one message he would bring to the daily press briefing if he were president. He answered without hesitation: “I would begin the press conference by saying ‘Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to Ron Klain … Covid czar.’ ”In 2014, Barack Obama appointed Ron Klain as the White House Ebola response coordinator to fight what was then the world’s biggest health threat. Klain is not a doctor or public health expert; he’s a lawyer with deep experience in politics. He served as chief of staff to two vice presidents, Al Gore and Joe Biden. His day job is vice president and general counsel of Revolution, the investment fund of former AOL CEO Steve Case, but he’s still very much a political animal and is serving as an adviser to Biden’s presidential campaign.
The Ebola experience defines him. After an initial response that critics said was too slow, Obama took aggressive action, including deploying thousands of troops to West Africa and bringing on Klain as the Ebola czar. Those efforts were instrumental in averting a wider catastrophe. Klain now is firmly in the I-saw-this-coming camp, having testified in Congress and written op-eds trying to alert the country to pandemic danger, with more urgency earlier this year. He has become the face of Biden’s response to the crisis, specifically as a Khan Academy-esque lecturer in a four-minute video that highlighted the shortcomings of the Trump administration’s response to the epidemic with simple whiteboard drawings and presented Biden’s brief plan to address the disaster. (The unsurprising four-point plan includes more testing, emergency hospitals, more medical supplies, and financial aid.) More than 4 million people watched the video.WIRED spoke to Klain by phone on April 3. The interview is edited and condensed.
Steven Levy: You are playing a unique role in this crisis. You led the United States in a pandemic response, but you’re also advising the candidate likely to oppose the current president in November. How do you balance being an information resource and a partisan advocate?Ron Klain: In both cases it’s about telling the truth. The pandemic itself shouldn’t be a political issue. It should be an issue about getting the response right. When I speak about that publicly, when I advise Vice President Biden privately, I focus on the lessons we’ve learned from the Ebola response and how those lessons and other learnings can be applied to get this current situation right.Let’s talk about the lessons. You were not an epidemiologist when you were appointed in 2014 to address Ebola. What did you have to learn fast and how did you do it?
I was brought in not because I knew about public health or pandemics but because I had had experience in making the different arms of the government work together and making them work effectively and quickly. That really was the challenge—coordinating between the different agencies, and in that case in particular focusing on getting a lot of help to West Africa, which was obviously the frontline of this epidemic in the fall of 2014. The high-level lessons applicable today are, first and foremost, let the medical experts be the touchstone of the responses—let them be the people who are formulating this strategy, let them be the spokespeople. And, secondly, use every power that the federal government has to harness that direction into effective action, whether that’s getting the right equipment produced and put in the right places, whether it’s getting the right people mobilized and put in the right places. The federal government has vast power to do things if a president is willing to use it effectively. Those are the two things, by the way, that are both missing from the current coronavirus response.