White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain Kowtows before the Economic Club Of Washington

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

How does an old man like you stay alive, George?
I don’t eat.
You don’t eat?
Yes, but it hasn’t affected my appetite!
Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, Firesign Theatre

When I saw that President Biden’s Chief of Staff, Ron Klain, had given a speech at the Economic Club of Washington DC, I actually looked forward to reading the transcript (here), because I’ve heard other public figures give presentations to regional Economic Clubs in places like Cleveland or San Francisco, and the talks have often been interesting, the questions trenchant. Boy, was I naive. Of course, the Economic Club of Washington is on K Street:

And the sycophancy was so gummy and blobby that you couldn’t cut it with a shovel. (Thomas Frank, if you’re reading this, this event is worthy of your attention.) Fortunately for us all, or at least many of us, Klain’s speech, as a matter of public record, is about to sink beneath the waves; I searched for a line from interviewer David Rubenstein’s introduction, and it doesn’t show up in Google at all, and only yields one hit in DuckDuckGo:

But wait, you say. David Rubenstein? Rubenstein is a squillionaire, and co-founder and co-chairman of the ginormous private equity firm The Carlyle Group, “the CIA of the business world.” So what we have here isn’t really a speech to a club; it’s a subordinate (Klain) reporting to a superior (Rubenstein), on matters of interest to that superior. (Bourdieu would love this.)

Mostly, Rubenstein is interested in Ukraine. I’m not, because I think we have no way of knowing what’s happening on the ground. I’m interested in details of how Washington works, and especially interested in Covid. (I’m also a little bit interested in Klain, a spectacular mediocrity who should not hold high office.) So I’m going to cut out snippets from the speech, and comment on them. I’m sorry I can’t give this speech the full treatment; it would be like putting on my yellow waders to dive into a bowl of oatmeal at a rolling, gummy, blobby boil. Not advisable.

Again, the first salient feature of the talk is the sycophancy. Here’s Rubenstein introducing Klain:

Rubenstein: “I am but a humble squillionaire, hardly as qualified as you!”

The second salient feature is West Wing Brain:

Yes, just how Toby and Josh would explain it!

The fourth feature — I don’t know how salient it is, but it sure is interesting — is the secret entrance:

A sekrit entrace rings a bell with me, because as an old-timer who actually blogged about the first Bush Administration, I remember the Jeff Gannon/James Guckert scandal. Guckert, whose professional name was “Bulldog,” spent several nights in the Bush White House without being logged in, and later, under the name Gannon, became a White House correspondent for Talon News (which no longer exists). In any case, I’m not sure exactly what message Rubenstein is sending Klain, except possibly “we both know I can get a clandestine meeting with The Big Guy” whenever I want.

Returning to less salty matters, we have more West Wing Brain:

I think what this translates to is that the White House staff conforms to the liberal Democrat norm of conflict avoidance. The passage also — unsurprisingly — screams groupthink, as well as authoritarian followership (since the ideology of the “team” is that we’re all contributors, and power relation are not to be discussed).

That said, it would be churlish of me to dismiss the White House successes: They are running the two largest and most pervasive propaganda compaigns I’ve ever experienced: “Covid is over!” and “Ukraine! Ukraine! Ukraine!” And they’re doing this quite successfully (though with more success for the latter than the former, having had 2022 – 2016 = 6 years of RussiaGate and Trump/Putin to build on). So Klain’s White House staff is indeed very good; it’s just a question of at what.

And now we come to Covid. Rubenstien presents two topics for discussion: Masks and vax. From this, we deduce that those are the only two topics Rubenstien cares about — and hence, I would speculate, his class. No mention of non-pharmaceutical interventions, no mention of ventilation, no mention of layered protection, no mention of variants, no mention of the CDC, not even a theory of tranmission (i.e, aerosols). He doesn’t even ask Klain if another wave is coming, and whether the Administration is prepared for it; this is, I assume, a matter of indifference to him. On masks:

[Pounding my head on my desk at the banality of it all.] So, we see that Walensky comes by her hatred (“Scarlet Letter”) of masks honestly; her class superiors hate them, and so she does too. We also see — something else Bourdieu would love — that socializing is very important to the squillionaires; I would imagine that’s how they decide on and propogate high policy; or “rule,” as we might say. (It all sounds very nice, as one may “socialize” in the neighborhood bar, but trust me, a neighborhood bar is nothing like a Georgetown cocktail party.) I am not certain why Rubenstien believes that masks make it harder to “socialize”; plenty of cultures that mask socialize perfectly well. I again put forward my speculation that masks hide smiles, smiling is essential to lying, and lying is essential to our ruling class.

So, Klain reports to Rubenstein that masks are going away. Klain also reports by omission that vax-only remains the policy:

Klain doesn’t seem to think that it’s within a President’s purview to change history. or even try. And the vaccines may be “accessible, available [why the distinction], and free,” but Klain has nothing to say about safety, the immuno-compromised, children, Long Covid, unlocking IP so poor countries can manufacture their own, or the fact that the vaccines aren’t sterilizing, despite what we were initially told. Presumably, again, these are matters of indifference to Rubenstein and his class.

* * *

Since Klain has reported to his superiors that no masks and vax-only are the twin pillars of Biden’s Covid policy, expect nothing except that dictated by “events, dear boy, events” until 2024. (The unknown variable is that the dogs aren’t eating the dogfood on masking, but the answer there will be to double down on the propaganda, as usual. And of course, some nasty whistleblower might make the Pharma executives wish they’d dumped all their stock.) Of course, such “events” could be emerging right now in China, or at the international airport near you. So [here Rubenstein smiles gently] “Let ‘er rip” and — and unless you got a ticket to HappyVille, and not Pain City — “You’re on your own, kid!”

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Bugs

    It’s really fun when you bring the help up on stage with you. Sometimes they’re great, most times they won’t surprise you.

  2. hamstak

    On the secret entrance: this rather rhymes with Hillary Clinton making a distinction between having a public position and a private position. There is a public entrance, and there is a private entrance.

    And then there is the entrance for the servants — but we can just pretend that that one doesn’t exist.

  3. Carolinian

    masks hide smiles, smiling is essential to lying, and lying is essential to our ruling class.

    Dangerously close to the truth. Hope you weren’t smiling when you wrote it.

    As for propaganda campaigns, I’m finding my way to more and more non-blob information. Taibbi has new column comparing us to 1984 but 1984 didn’t have an internet. Zuckerberg’s power is very vulnerable globally speaking. His social media dominance has been floating on a cloud of naivety and good will.

    1. JBird4049

      IIRC, 1984 did have a television that was almost always on and could have someone listening or viewing at anytime or not.

      That is why my next tv will be a dumb one or internet free one like my current antique. I already have the pocket computer and the desktop as possible spyware via the NSA and any of the megacorps as they see the laws are to ignored.

      Strangely, finding such a tv is frustrating as most of the ones sold are stuffed full of adware and spyware because that is how they can sell such “cheap” televisions. You pay with your time and privacy.

      On this presentation, it only shows how ignorant these people are. An ignorance cultivated by them. They have access to the internet, books, experts, and the front door, and yet are ruled by that cultivated..: ignorance is not right… maybe folly is.

      1. Carolinian

        I have a TV but I don’t watch TV news and even mute the thing during the commercials on other shows. Call it propaganda phobia.

        Of course Orwell’s two way televisions were to prevent you from doing this. Steve Jobs and Apple made a thing out of it with their famous Big Brother Mac commercial.

        Times have certainly changed but one beauty of computers is that there’s always a workaround when it comes to machinery which is why our current propagandists are so insistent on programming the viewers themselves. They want you to love your brainwashing so they reduce it to the level of bedtime stories.

      2. Late Introvert


        An HP computer monitor is our TV, I think it was about $180 for 17″, but we have a small house and I hate those huge screens people stare at now. Use it with an antenna and converter box, lots of free if crappy channels over the air now.

        Add a cheap Samsung Blu-Ray player and library videos, the library also gives us a free sub to Kanopy, which I recently discovered has old Soviet agitprop films. Not to mention Rainer Werner Fassbinder films not found anywhere else, a current obsession of mine.

        The wife and daughter have NetFlix, which is definitely spying, but they love it and so I said OK.

        p.s. want to add that you should look for the monitors that are designed to be watchable from a distance and at an angle, such as in a living room with people gathered around

        1. JBird4049

          I might do that. However, my screen is going to be larger than 17”. The most important thing (aside from the actual screen) for me is a region free player that can convert or play the rare movies that I occasionally like to watch.

          Now if I could just get the American or British release of Roman Polanski’s J’Accuse that was shelved despite being ready to go.

  4. Samuel Conner

    Re: “Scarlet Letter”, the thought occurs that it’s the same letter: A, as in “Afraid of Post-Acute Sequelae of COVID”.

    Perhaps we should not be afraid of the fear of PASC.

  5. John

    Two propaganda campaigns at the same time! Impressive. Good to know that they can do something well. But, I forget that next to Russia! Russia! Russia! , Narrative! Narrative! Narrative! is most important. Untutored minion that I am, I tend to think of a narrative as being fiction and secondarily as fact tidied up for dissemination.

  6. Tomonthebeach

    The elephant in the room is the politically-inconvenient “global” pandemic Biden and most of the West have decided is over despite mounting data to the contrary. As the administration removes its masks so COVID can better seek entry into America’s under-vaccinated respiratory system, the growing wave of new infections seem to be left to hide in the error term of the equation. Per BBC [https://www.bbc.com/news/world-51235105], new cases in Hong Kong, mainland China, Germany, much of western EU, India, and the US are forming a new wave.

    That wave will likely soon hit global economic shores with the destructive force of a tsunami because, well, there is a war going on, the West has turned the world economy inside out, and I doubt if any world leader has a clue how to recover from that double whammy.

    1. Late Introvert

      Ron Klain is laughable light entertainment for pampered fools. Mockery is the only response.

      There is no question that the next C-19 wave is upon us, right after the experts announced that masks were no longer needed. The hell they aren’t.

      I want to repeat a fact that I’ve mentioned before on here. My public school attending child has since about 2nd grade until March of 2020 had “colds” involving vomiting and fevers that usually lasted 3 days, and occurred every 6 to 8 weeks like clockwork. No doctor ever had a clue. I wouldn’t expect them to, I vomited as a child also, but my kid’s were so frequent.

      But guess what? Since that time she has not been sick, or my wife, or myself. After we started the mask, wash up, gargle and nose spray, Vitamin D3 and just vigilance in public regimen. So she is determined to keep masking (junior in High School) even though everyone else is choosing… badly.

  7. Tom Stone

    The abject fawning to start the piece is a gem.
    And then Klaine…
    It’s quite clarifying.

  8. John

    Makes me think of the scene in 2nd season Succession when the fascist Roy’s visit the waspy liberal owner of the liberal paper. Said owner invites her housekeeper to mingle with the crowd when drinks are served. The housekeeper cringes uncomfortably, wonderfully, and excuses herself. Beautiful scene. Kaine already has the housekeeper role down perfectly. Subservient worker elf reports to overlord.
    I always love the story where Rubenstein taught Clinton that it was uncouth to use the word rich, when those who understood would only say wealthy.
    Such are the mysterious dominance/subservience displays of our overlords.
    Byzantium would understand.

  9. Art_DogCT

    I was delighted at the opening citation, and went down a small rabbit hole to offer this public Firesign Theater playlist for whatever delight and instruction it may provide:


    (One of my favorite quotes from FT, that I try to insert into conversation/dialog whenever I think I can stir the pot, is, “Turn in your books as we learn three new words in Turkish. Towel. Bath. May I see your passport, please?” I’ve been doing this since high school, when I replayed the LP again and again to transcribe this nugget. In other news,

    I grow old … I grow old …
    I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.)

    1. John Zelnicker

      Thanks so much, Art_DogCT. I still have a couple of those albums, but no record player.

      Now I can listen to some of my all time favorite sketches.

  10. Mikel

    The part about Dick Cheney’s advice to Klain to look out for the Vice President: priceless.

    I also had a good chuckle at the early introduction with the praise for Klein resisting “the temptation” to work at a private equity firm….as if he wasn’t already in a prime position to serve them.

  11. SD

    In one of my professional incarnations, I wrote case studies for use in business schools–including THAT one, yes–and one of the only times I ever felt like I didn’t need a Silkwood shower after handing in a draft was when the professor I was working with told me to take out/stop using the word “team.” Needless to say, he was an ESG/socially responsible investing guy, but unlike most of those people he actually did seem to bear the burden of a decent human being’s conscience.

  12. Watt4Bob

    Saw a blurb on MSN yesterday, Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon says; “… it’s not the banks job to enforce sanctions on Russia.”

    And “…what we have is business with an overlay of government and regulation.”

    I’d say he’s trying to obscure the fact that what we really have is a pliant government, and lack of regulation with an overlay of business.

    Absolutely true, Klain is performing a ritual a**-kissing for his boss’s real bosses.

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