Janet Yellen, Tony Blinken, Ron Klain and the End of Crazy Time

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The announcement of cabinet members out of Biden transition headquarters should be soothing as Trump’s post-election declarations are alarming. No one doubts that Jake Sullivan, the forthcoming national security adviser, or Tony Blinken, the soon to be secretary of state, are serious people. Lahnee Chen, Mitt Romney’s top policy advisor during the 2012 presidential race, described Sullivan, who he knows well, as a “top caliber” individual on MSNBC. You can disagree with the pro-multilateral views of the two, their take on the Iran arms deal or efforts to contain Vladimir Putin’s aggression against former Soviet republics. Still, you’re not going to see bonkers. Seb Gorka, the baritone giant with the memorable accent, famously said at the outset of the Trump administration, “the era of the pajama boys is over. The alpha males are back.” You might say the era of the straight-jacket crazy men is over. There’s no more Mike Flynn, Richard Grenell, John Ratcliffe, or Steve Bannon who had a seat on the National Security Council for a time. Even Donald Trump’s accomplished and courtly first Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, who seems like Metternich compared to what followed, somehow managed to piss off the Hill, Foggy Bottom, and the White House–a rare hat trick–before getting shown the door. 

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I know Blinken and like him and his wife, Evan Ryan, herself a much-admired veteran of the State Department and Office of the Vice President. We’ve got many friends in common. We’re both the same age and have been in DC for a long time. Stay in Washington long enough, and the people you knew as youngins become George Marshall and James Baker. As Barack Obama said this week, Blinken is consistently gracious and diplomatic, which will be a welcome change from Mike Pompeo. YouTube videos of Blinken speaking fluently on a Parisian talk show are making the rounds, as well as his Spotify recordings. It’s all very refreshing.

What I find interesting is that this is the first Secretary of State as staff. I don’t mean that pejoratively but John Kerry, Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Cy Vance, Ed Muskie were closer to presidential peers than top aides. Some of that is that age difference; Blinken is 20 years younger than Biden. I haven’t done the math, but just eyeballing it, I can’t imagine we’ve had a Secretary of State 20 years younger than the president in this century or ever. Still, at 58 Blinken is older than Condi Rice when she took the job at 55 or Henry Kissinger at 50.


This doesn’t mean Biden runs State or Blinken lacks his predecessors’ wide command to implement foreign policy. It does mean a healthy, close, and pre-existing relationship between president and secretary. It’s probably the closest of any since Rice and George W. Bush and before that James Baker and George H.W. Bush. If Biden and Blinken pursue bad policies, intimacy won’t save them, but it is likely to help with unforced errors. No one will doubt Blinken speaks for the president. And, hopefully, it does mean that historical tensions between State and Defense or State and the NSC advisor are likely to be quickly cooled if there are any at all. The other Biden picks all seem super solid, and choosing a Secretary of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, who is strongest on the immigration side, was wise. Figuring out DACA, reuniting separated families, preparing for what surely be another wave of immigration from Central America makes more sense than someone whose bent is more like Marine John Kelly’s.

An interesting aside. I noted on Twitter that it was an exciting pick for the U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Jay Carney. He and Blinken are very close, and Blinken recruited him to be Joe Biden’s press secretary in 2009, a job Carney had before he was White House Press Secretary. Biden and Carney are very close. (Disclosure; I know and like Jay. We worked together as colleagues at Time and as competitors covering the White House and other beats before that.) Jay speaks fluent Russian and was a correspondent for Time in Moscow during the tumultuous Gorbachev-Yeltsin years. (His wife, Claire Shipman, the author, covered Moscow for CNN at the time.) Carney really could do the job. Having a Russian ambassador close to the secretary and president would be good. Would Carney want to give up what must be an insanely lucrative perch running public affairs for Amazon? Trading DC and Seattle and money for the gloomy autocracy of Putin may not be tempting. But if the shares have vested, it would be of service to the country. 

Janet Yellen is in a class by herself. She’s as ready to be Treasury Secretary as anyone and at 74 will be one of the oldest, older than Lloyd Bentsen (72) or Andrew Mellon (65). She’s universally liked and respected which is why even Trump almost kept her at the Fed. Steve Mnuchin has been among the least awful Trump cabinet members but this will feel like a big step up the first time you see her (yes, her!) signature on the currency

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It’s a couple of days late, but I share in all of the accolades for Ron Klain. His Zelig-like ability to be everywhere is genuinely remarkable. Less remarked upon in his bio than, say, his tenure as Ebola czar is this: In 1993, Klain was asked by his old boss Justice Byron “Whizzer” White to inform the new Clinton White House of his retirement. Since then, he’s done everything, including two stints as chief of staff to the Vice President, once for Al Gore and once for Joe Biden. His toughest moment may have been having Kevin Spacey portray him in the HBO film about the Florida recount.

I’ve known Klain as a journalist, but 20 years ago, I negotiated with him. I had an idea when I was at Time that the magazine should join with its then corporate partner, CNN, to sponsor a Democratic Primary Debate at the Apollo Theatre, which was managed by AOL-Time-Warner. I sold the idea internally and took off my bureau and reporting duties to set it up. It meant a lot of time on the phone with the Bill Bradley and Al Gore camps. Everyone had the usual debate demands about time and podiums. But because this was in Harlem, the mecca for Black America, each campaign had all kinds of questions about seats, who would speak, offer benedictions, and whatnot. (Al Sharpton, on his way from provocateur to eminence grise, helped out informally.) Someone in Gore world had Klain, the Gore negotiator, insist that Tavis Smiley, the broadcaster, has some kind of role. CNN and Time had their journalists and weren’t going to budge. Klain knew that, I’m sure, but he used it as a tool to get other things and had game. 

Later that year, helping his O’Melveny mentor Warren Christopher lead the Gore fight in the Florida recount did not go his way.  But it was a reminder for Klain about how tough Republicans can be. He’d seen it on Capitol Hill, and as an aide to Janet Reno and in the White House, but it was a stark reminder that being a Wise Man in the age of the likes of Trump and Mitch McConnell requires being a brawler as well as a statesman. Biden has a weak hand: not enough congressional ballast and a pandemic to boot. In Klain, Blinken, and others, he has a very strong one.

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