On Wednesday, September 6, former White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain (C’83) returned to the Hilltop to discuss his experience in the Biden administration and how best to restore trust in government.
During his interview with GU Politics Executive Director Mo Elleithee (SFS ‘94) in the ICC Auditorium, Klain described his time at Georgetown as entirely responsible for his career success. He praised all that he learned at Georgetown from professors and peers and choked up at the memory of meeting his wife in his freshman year dorm, Darnall Hall. In his words, “virtually everything good that’s happened to me in life has happened because I went here to Georgetown.”
To begin the discussion of trust in government, Elleithee asked Klain, given his decades of experience in various aspects of politics and government, why he thought there has been such a decline in government trust in the last few decades. Klain pointed to the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, and, for younger generations, the forever wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as the primary impetus for this decline.
But, as he continued to do throughout the evening, Klain pivoted to how he thought the achievements of the Biden administration might be able to restore trust in government. He believes that the administration’s success recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic and the passage of the American Rescue Plan, Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the CHIPS and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act will show and have shown that the government can work for people.
Klain explained the cross-partisan distrust in government by pointing out that government is a broad term, and that when a liberal says they distrust the government, the “government” they may have in mind is a conservative Supreme Court who restricts abortion rights. Similarly, when a conservative says they distrust the government, they may be thinking of agencies like the CDC or Department of Education who they believe have overreached their authority.
When pushed by Elleithee to explain the collapse in approval rating that President Biden faced following the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Klain explained, in detail, the rationale of the Biden administration in their decision. He stressed that even though “it looked chaotic…it was the most successful humanitarian evacuation in history.”
To conclude his conversation with Klain, Elleithee asked him if he thought any political reforms were necessary to restore and protect public trust in government. Klain pointed to voting rights and redistricting as two areas where American democracy was in much need of reform.
The program then shifted to student questions, which included everything from requests for career advice to wondering what Klain thought about a specific congressional candidate. One of his most memorable pieces of advice was that career mentors are overrated. He said that most mentors either die or retire before they can be of a lot of use.
Instead, Klain said, “the most important relationship students are going to build is with their peers… your peers are the people who are going to move through your career with you.” Klain pointed to his colleagues who staffed the Clinton administration together and later ran the Biden administration— people like Anita Dunn, Steve Richetti, Bruce Reed, and Mike Donilon.
Darius Wagner, a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences from Brooklyn, New York asked Klain what he credited for the Biden administration’s historic legislative success. Klain was quick to point to his belief in and emphasis on “team.” He said he was proud of the mutual respect and trust that had developed between White House staffers and the diversity he had built into the team.
Later, in response to a question from Elleithee, Klain recounted the story of his most treasured possession from his time in the White House: a rock, given to him by the White House’s Director of Legislative Affairs, Louisa Terrell.
During the darker days of the administration when Biden’s agenda was stalling and there were calls for him to fire Klain, Terrell walked into Klain’s office, handed him the rock from her beach trip, and told him that he was “the rock of this team.” At this point in his re-telling, Klain again teared up and said that it meant a lot to him to have his subordinates back him up and “not point fingers upward” in a time of stress.
To conclude the event, Elleithee asked Klain what lessons he had learned from his many years in Washington that he wished to impart to the undergraduate and graduate students. Klain said that students should be proud to be politicians and political professionals.
“Politics is what makes change possible in a democratic society. Never feel apologetic or head down about the fact that you like politics.”
He pointed to the just released tell-all book from the first two years of the Biden administration, The Last Politician by Franklin Foer, in which Foer argues that Biden, unlike President Obama or Trump, was legislatively and politically successful in his first two years in office, because he was willing to embrace the old school tactics of politics.
For Klain, politics is not just a good thing, but perhaps the only hope of making government work again and restoring the public’s trust in our institutions.
This article was written by Asher Maxwell (C’26), Executive Editor of On The Record.
Click here to view CSPAN’s coverage of this event.
Click here to read The Hoya’s coverage of this event.