Janet Yellen, Tony Blinken, Ron Klain and the end of crazy times

Copyright (c) European Central Bank 2018

Jenet Yellen at the farewell dinner for her, thrown by the European Central Bank, 2018

The announcement by cabinet members from Biden headquarters should be reassuring as Trump’s post-election statements are alarming. No one doubts Jake Sullivan, the upcoming National Security Advisor, or Tony Blinken, soon to be Secretary of State, are serious people. Lahnee Chen, Mitt Romney’s best political advisor in the 2012 presidential contest, described Sullivan, whom he knows well, as “top caliber” on MSNBC. You cannot agree with the two’s pro-multilateral views, their attitudes towards the Iranian arms deal, or efforts to contain Vladimir Putin’s aggression against former Soviet republics. Still, you won’t see any fools. Seb Gorka, the baritone giant with the memorable accent, said at the start of the Trump administration, “The era of pajama boys is over. The alpha males are back. “You could say the era of crazy straightjacketed men is over. There are no longer any Mike Flynn, Richard Grenell, John Ratcliffe or Steve Bannon who had a seat on the National Security Council for a while. Even Donald Trump’s savvy and courtly First Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who seems like Metternich compared to what followed, somehow managed to piss off the hill, foggy ground, and White House – a rare hat trick – before he was shown the door.

I know Blinken and I like him and his wife, Evan Ryan, who is herself a much admired veteran of the State Department and the Vice President’s Office. We have a lot of mutual friends. 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 will become George Marshall and James Baker. As Barack Obama said this week, Blinken is consistently friendly and diplomatic, which will be a welcome change from Mike Pompeo. YouTube videos of Blinken, who speaks fluently on a Paris talk show, as well as his Spotify recordings are making the rounds. It’s all very refreshing.

What I find interesting is that this is the first foreign minister to work. I don’t mean it derogatory, but John Kerry, Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Cy Vance, and Ed Muskie were closer to the President’s colleagues than the top aides. Some of it is this age difference; Blinken is 20 years younger than Biden. I haven’t done the math, but I can’t imagine in this century or ever that we’ve had a foreign minister 20 years younger than the president. Nonetheless, at 58, Blinken is older than Condi Rice, when she took the job at 55, or Henry Kissinger at 50.

This does not mean that Biden rules the state or that Blinken lacks the broad command of his predecessors to implement foreign policy. It means a healthy, close, and pre-existing relationship between the President and the Secretary. It’s probably the next of them all since Rice and George W. Bush, and before that, James Baker and George HW Bush. If Biden and Blinken have bad guidelines, intimacy won’t save them, but they are likely to help with casual mistakes. Nobody will doubt that Blinken speaks for the president. And hopefully this means that historical tensions between state and defense, or state and the NSC advisor, are likely to cool quickly, if at all. The other Biden picks all seem very solid, and choosing a Homeland Security Minister, Alejandro Mayorkas, who is strongest on the immigration side, was wise. Figuring out the DACA to reunite separated families and prepare for another wave of immigration from Central America makes more sense than someone whose inclination more closely resembles that of Marine John Kelly.

An interesting site. I found on Twitter that it was an exciting choice for the US 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 role Carney had before he was White House press secretary. Biden and Carney are very close. (Disclosure; I know and like Jay. We’ve worked together as colleagues at Time and as competitors who have covered the White House and other beats before.) Jay is fluent in Russian and was a correspondent for Time in during Gorbachev-Yeltsin’s tumultuous years Moscow. (His wife, Claire Shipman, the writer, was covering Moscow for CNN at the time.) Carney really could do the job. It would be good to have a Russian ambassador close to the secretary and the president. Would Carney want to give up on what must be an insanely lucrative perch handling public affairs for Amazon? Trading DC and Seattle and raising money for Putin’s gritty autocracy may not be alluring. However, if the stocks are vested it would be beneficial to the country.

Janet Yellen is in a class of her own. She is just as ready to be Treasury Secretary as anyone and will be one of the oldest at 74, older than Lloyd Bentsen, 72, or Andrew Mellon, 65. It is universally popular and respected, which is why even Trump almost kept it at the Fed. Steve Mnuchin was among the least terrifying Trump cabinet members, but this will feel like a big step the first time you see their (yes, them!) Signature on the currency

It’s a few days late, but I share all of the awards for Ron Klain. His Zelig-like ability to be anywhere is truly remarkable. His biography mentions it less than, for example, his tenure as Ebola Tsar: 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 has done everything, including serving as Chief of Staff to the Vice President, one for Al Gore and one for Joe Biden. Perhaps his toughest moment was Kevin Spacey portraying him in the HBO film about the Florida recount.

I know Klain as a journalist, but I negotiated with him 20 years ago. I had an idea when I was at time The magazine was supposed to team up with its then corporate partner CNN to sponsor a Democratic Primary Debate at the Apollo Theater, led by AOL-Time-Warner. I sold the idea internally and took off my office and reporting to set it up. It meant spending a lot of time on the phone with the Bill Bradley and Al Gore camps. Each had the usual time and podium debate requirements. But because this was in Harlem, the Mecca for Black America, every campaign had all sorts of questions about seats that speak, offer blessings, and so on. (Al Sharpton was informal on his way from provocateur to Eminence Grise.) Somebody in the Gore world made Klain, the Gore negotiator, insist that Tavis Smiley, the broadcaster, play a role. CNN and time had their journalists and would not move. Klain knew that, I’m sure, but he used it as a tool to get other things and had play.

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 of how tough Republicans can be. He’d seen it on Capitol Hill and as an aide to Janet Reno and the White House, but it was a stark reminder that in the age of Trump and Mitch McConnell, a wise man must be a thug as a statesman too. Biden has a weak hand: not enough ballast in Congress and a pandemic. He has a very strong one in Klain, Blinken and others.

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