Klain is starting his second stint as chief of staff for a U.S. vice president. With the exception of the drawn-out recount fight in Florida after the 2000 presidential election, Klain has spent his entire professional career in Washington, both in and out of government. In 1994, Time magazine put him on its list of 50 lawyers under 40 to watch.(1)
Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe called Klain “one of the most politically talented and intellectually powerful students I've ever had.”(1) Klain was the youngest chief counselor on the Senate Judiciary Committee at age 27, was chief of staff to the attorney general at 31, and moved into the White House to be Vice President Al Gore’s chief of staff at age 34. After Klain left Capitol Hill for the Clinton White House, then-Sen. Joseph R. Biden (D-Del.) said he would be happy to see Klain on the Supreme Court someday.(2) After Biden was elected vice president, he tapped Klain to be his chief of staff. Klain had been out of government since 2000, working as an attorney and lobbyist for the D.C. law firm O’Melveny and Myers.
Klain is probably best known outside Washington for his work during the 2000 presidential election. After the polls closed, Texas Gov. George W. Bush was leading Vice President Al Gore by 1,000 votes in the critical state of Florida. Klain led the Gore team in demanding a recount in some strong Democratic counties and had cut Bush’s margin down to about 200 votes before the recount was stopped by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Klain’s role in this drama was immortalized in the 2008 HBO movie “Recount,” in which Kevin Spacey portrayed him as the hard-charging lawyer. After the movie was released, Klain told Newsweek that “it’s definitely painful to watch.”(3)
Path to Power
Klain grew up in Indiana, did his undergraduate work at Georgetown University, interned for Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) and then graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School. He clerked for Supreme Court Justice Byron White for two years, then became the Senate Judiciary Committee’s youngest-ever chief counsel at the age of 27.(4)
He was Washington director of the Clinton-Gore presidential campaign in 1992, worked on the transition team after the Democrats won the election, then became an associate in the White House counsel’s office. He helped shepherd Attorney General Janet Reno and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg through the Senate’s confirmation process, then became Reno’s chief of staff at age 31.(1) “Should a 31-year-old law school graduate like Ron Klain be in charge of judicial appointment evaluations?” Steven Trott, a former Justice Department official under President Ronald Reagan, asked in a debate with Reno. She said yes.
Top members of the Democratic Party have always had a great deal of respect for Klain. Reno wanted Klain as her chief of staff immediately after being confirmed, but President Clinton said he needed Klain to work on judicial appointments. Klain had a hand in many of the Clinton administration’s decisions on judicial issues, but he briefly left the administration to go back to Capitol Hill as staff director for the Senate Democratic Leadership Committees. In 1995, Vice President Al Gore asked Klain to be his chief of staff.(5)
Klain took the job and stayed there until 1999, when Gore’s campaign for President began to heat up. When Gore replaced campaign manager Peter King with Tony Coelho, Klain, who was reportedly close to King, left the campaign.(6) Klain insisted that he was friendly with Coelho, who urged him to stay, but said he wanted to spend more time with his young children. He joined the law firm of O’Melveny and Myers but stayed with the campaign as an informal, unpaid adviser.(7)
Klain's role grew dramatically in the weeks following the 2000 election, when he traveled to Florida to head Gore’s legal team during the recount.(8) The explosive recount endured for far longer than expected, and involved several courts and the Florida legislature. , in an attempt to show that Gore could make up his 1,000-vote statewide deficit, Gore’s campaign asked for recounts in a handful of jurisdictions, including heavily Democratic Broward and Palm Beach counties. Bush’s campaign team accused Gore’s lawyers of trying to block the counting of absentee votes, which were believed to favor Bush. Klain’s team filed a brief accusing Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris (R) of a “Kafkaesque” approach because she tried to stop the hand-counting of ballots and then said she wouldn’t include the hand-counting in the vote total.(9)
The Gore team employed dozens of lawyers, but Klain was the go-to guy on all briefs for the Florida Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court.(2) "Ron is not the kind of person who gives an assignment and goes home. He has regularly and consistently exhausted himself," O’Melveny and Myers attorney Mark Steinberg said. "This moment is the greatest possible challenge for a talent like Ron. It's an opportunity to be at the center of history, and it calls on the skills that he has."(2)
Gore was on the losing side of history when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of stopping the recount, effectively electing Bush. After the decision, Klain worked on a brief arguing that the high court’s ruling contained a loophole that could be used to keep the recount going. But Gore decided not to pursue that option and conceded instead.(10) The saga was documented in HBO’s 2008 docudrama “Recount” in which Klain was played by Kevin Spacey. "It's the story of a horrible defeat, from my perspective, and an unjust outcome," Klain said. "That said, I'm glad the story is being told because I think there are a lot of important lessons for our system and for the changes that we need to make."(11)
Private Sector and Obama Adviser
After the election, Klain returned to O’Melveny and Myers, where he worked as a partner until 2005. While there, he lobbied for an airline merger, for mortgage regulations to help Fannie Mae and for drug manufacturers, among others. Lobbying accounted for “approximately 10 percent of his work in a given year,” Obama transition spokesman Tommy Vietor said.(12) Klain left the law firm in 2005 to become vice president and senior counsel for Revolution LLC, a company created by AOL co-founder Steve Case. That move made him eligible to work in the Obama-Biden administration under its rules. Obama has said he will not hire anyone to work in areas related to their lobbying if they have worked as a lobbyist within the last two years.(13)
Klain worked as an adviser to the 2008 presidential campaign and helped prepare Sens. Obama and Biden for their debates.(14) Klain was one of the first hires announced in November after Obama and Biden were elected. “Ron Klain has been a trusted adviser of mine for over 20 years," Biden said in a statement shortly after the hiring was announced. "He brings extraordinary judgment, a deep understanding of the important policy issues facing our nation, a wide range of experience in the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, as well as a unique understanding of how the vice president's office works.”(15)
Klain is one of the Democratic Party’s top legal scholars. During his time as an associate in the Clinton White House counsel’s office, Klain was charged with evaluating potential judicial appointees, from attorney general to Supreme Court justices. He worked with attorney general candidate Janet Reno during her Senate confirmation hearings, and with Supreme Court nominee Ruth Bader Ginsburg during her confirmation.(4)
When Klain was chief counsel of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he wrote most of the omnibus crime bill that was vetoed by President George H.W. Bush, and, working for the Clinton campaign, he suggested the future president’s initiative to add 100,000 new police officers. Klain was a key player in the passage of Clinton’s new crime bill that included more police officers, and he used his contacts on the Hill to help push the House to pass an assault weapons ban.(4)
Klain has worked closely with many of the most influential people in the Democratic Party. When he was chief of staff for Vice President Al Gore, John Podesta (who later headed President Barack Obama’s transition team) was White House chief of staff and Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), Obama’s chief of staff, was a White House aide.
Klain also served as chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee while Vice President Joseph R. Biden was serving on the committee, and the senator was extremely impressed with the expertise of the young Klain. Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) appointed Klain to be staff director of the Senate Democratic Leadership Committees. Klain has known Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) since he was a teenager. He worked for Bayh’s father and advised Bayh when the senator was contemplating a 2008 presidential bid. Klain also has worked closely with former Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Supreme Court advocate Walter Dellinger at the O’Melveny and Myers law firm.
Van Biema, David, “Tomorrow,” Time Magazine, Dec. 5, 1994
Slevin, Peter, “Fast-track lawyer faces biggest challenge in Fla. Whirlwind: Behind Scenes, Klain is Gore’s Post-Election legal Maestro,” The Washington Post, Dec. 11, 2000
“A look back at the battle of 2000,” Newsweek, May 26, 2008
Shalit, Ruth, “The kids are alright,” The New Republic, July 18, 1994
Press release, “Vice Pres. Announces Ronald Klain as chief of staff,” Office of the Vice President, Oct. 20, 1995
Bazinet, Kenneth, “Top aide quits Gore campaign,” New York Daily News, Aug. 4, 1999
Schneider, Mary Beth, “Top aide leaves Gore for simplest reason,” The Indianapolis Star, Aug. 8, 1999
“Top Gore aides head to Florida,” Agence France Presse – English, Nov. 8, 2000
Balz, Dan, “Up by 930, Bush side assails Recount; Campaign calls hand tallies ‘flawed’ as absentee votes widen Governor’s lead,” The Washington Post, Nov. 19, 2000
Sweet, Lynn, “The Exit: When Gore called his lawyers, he said: ‘That was some election night, wasn’t it.’; Battle ends as legal brief is buried,” The Chicago Sun-Times, Dec. 14, 2000
Groppe, Maureen, “Hoosier portrayed in recount film; Attorney was Gore’s chief advisor in 2000 presidential vote fight,” May 25, 2008
Kenneth P. Vogel, “Klain arrives with K Street roots,” Politico.com, Nov. 14, 2008
Vogel, Kenneth P., “Klain arrives with K Street roots,” Politico.com, Nov. 14, 2008
Groppe, Maureen, “Speculation swirls about who will join Obama administration,” Gannett News Service, Nov. 7, 2008
Steinhauser, Paul, “Obama, Biden appoint advisers,” Nov. 15, 2008