White House Celebrates Klain, Welcomes Back Zients in East Room Ceremony

February 3, 2023 by Dan McCue
White House Celebrates Klain, Welcomes Back Zients in East Room Ceremony
Outgoing White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023.

WASHINGTON — It was a victory lap and, as victory laps often are, it was accompanied by a fair amount of tears.

The White House called it the “official transition event” from one chief of staff to another, but it quickly became clear in the packed East Room of the White House that the event marking the “retirement” of outgoing Chief of Staff Ron Klain was a family affair.

“I’ve known Ron since he was a kid,” President Joe Biden said during his opening remarks. “He was a third-year law student at a school near Boston. Harvard, I think. And he came to work with me in the U.S. Senate, on the Senate Judiciary Committee, a week after he got married.”

Biden said the moment Klain started he was a “once-in-a-generation talent.”

“That’s not hyperbole. He’s a fiercely brilliant intellect. Those who work with him know this to be true. And just as important, he has a heart as big as his head.”

Biden reflected on the fact Klain “could have chosen to do anything [he] wanted to do in life. But he chose to serve his country.”

For 36 years, the president said, Klain has been at his side “in one capacity or another.”

“There’ve been some very tough and real battles we’ve been in together,” Biden said. “And when you’re in the trenches with somebody, you figure out pretty quickly what they’re made of … you get to know that person pretty damn well.

“There’s a phrase in the neighborhood I come from, ‘He’s willing to jump in front of a bus for you.’ This is a guy who’s always been there. … And so I knew, as we faced our most important battle, the battle for the soul of the nation, that I needed Ron.”

Later, after acknowledging the many sacrifices Klain’s family had made so he could serve the senator, vice president, and later president, Biden turned his attention to the scores of staffers who crowded the room.

“There are a lot of ‘Klainiacs’ in this room and I know you’re going to miss him, but not as much as I will.”

Klain, who had held it together pretty well during the president’s tribute, followed his boss to the microphone, saying, “I will try to keep this brief, but I cannot promise there will not be some tears.”

With that, of course, Klain immediately burst into tears. 

“This is the best job I’ve ever had,” he said as Biden patted him on the back.

“And even though it’s also the hardest job I’ve ever had, I will miss this job … our work, this mission and, most of all, this team every single day,” he said as he regained his composure, temporarily.

“But I take solace in knowing that I am leaving you in the best of hands. Jeff Zients will be the first White House chief of staff ever to have led two policy shops and to have been head of Office of Management and Budget before he took over as White House chief of staff.

“At the darkest time in the Biden 2020 campaign, Jeff stepped up to help,” Klain continued. “He also ran the transition and picked, frankly, many of you here in this room. 

“He ran the COVID response and led the team that has helped save hundreds of thousands of lives,” the departing chief of staff said.

Klain then remarked that it was only two weeks ago, in marking the administration’s second year in office, that he bought everyone on the White House team cake.

Jeff Zients addresses the White House staff and reporters at transition event in the East Wing, Feb. 1, 2023. (Photo by Dan McCue)

“It was only the second time in two years that I bought everyone cake … and people were very happy,” he said to a roar of laughter from the room.

“But Jeff has pledged to buy everyone in the White House a free bagel every single day,” Klain continued, referring to the fact Zients is a partner and investor in Washington’s popular Jewish deli and bagel store, Call Your Mother.

“So I will soon be forgotten,” Klain quipped. “But what will not be forgotten is the work we have done together these past two years.

“You’ve heard me say this before, but I never tire of saying it. Together, we passed the largest economic plan, the most significant one, since FDR … while managing the largest land war in Europe since Truman.

“We got more judges confirmed in our first year than any first year president since JFK, and we passed the second-largest health care bill since LBJ, the most significant gun control bill since Bill Clinton was president and the largest climate bill passed by any country at any time — all while managing the worst public health crisis any president faced since Woodrow Wilson with the narrowest majority in Congress of any new Democratic president in 100 years.

“And that’s not all,” Klain said. “Student loan debt relief, record low Black and Brown unemployment, the PACT Act for veterans, a sweeping marijuana pardon, the Respect for Marriage Act, the most Americans, ever, with health care coverage, we ended the longest war in American history, and we’ve seen a dramatic drop in child poverty, the lowest unemployment rate in 50 years, the deficit cut more than by any other president, and a record number of jobs created in this country in any two-year period. 

“Now, that’s not bad,” Klain said. “And it is especially not bad for a president and a team that was written off for dead in the winter of 2019 … and for dead again in the winter of 2020 … and for dead again the first week of November 2022.

“The president likes to say it is never a good bet to bet against the American people. And he is right. But what I want to say today is it is never a good bet to bet against Joe Biden and this team. Never, ever a good bet,” Klain concluded.

Before he turned the microphone over to his successor, Klain observed that he is often asked what the best souvenir he’s gotten in his two years as White House chief of staff.

“My answer is simple,” he said. “It is this simple rock.”

Tearing up again as he held the rock aloft, Klain recalled that it was given to him about a year ago, during one of the administration’s darker days.

“It’s always symbolized for me that this team has been rock solid in support of our agenda. And the president. We’ve never wavered. We’ve been as solid as this rock. So I ask that each and every one of you continue to be the rock of this White House.”

The switch from Klain to Zients is the first major transition of the Biden administration. Among other things, he’ll have to manage the implementation of all the policy achievements of the past two years.

He’ll also have to deal with the fallout of the recent discoveries of classified documents at Biden’s home in Wilmington, Delaware, and at a Washington institute where the then-ex-vice president maintained an office. Those discoveries are now the subject of a special counsel investigation.

He’ll also be dealing with House Republicans and the White House and Congress as they try to come to an agreement on a new debt ceiling.

“That’s why I knew it was important to fill Ron’s shoes with someone who understands what it takes to lead a team and who is focused on getting important things done,” Biden said of Zients.

By the standard of what had come before, Zients remarks seemed especially brief.

“Mr. President, it’s been a privilege of a lifetime to work with you through some of the most difficult moments in our nation’s history,” he said. “Throughout it all, one of the many things I’ve greatly admired is your deep sense of purpose and duty to care for every single American. 

“That example filters down to everyone … you work with and who works for you,” he continued. “And that’s why we work as one team to ensure our democracy delivers for the people, a team that believes details and execution matter. A team that believes empathy and a moral compass matter. All of it in service to a responsive, results-oriented government that helps make people’s lives better.”

Like the president, Zients thanked Klain for his “tireless work during such a consequential period for our country.”

“You’ve left big shoes to fill, big footsteps to follow,” he said.

“I also want to thank my colleagues at the White House, the cabinet and across the administration,” Zients continued. “Governing is never easy. That’s an understatement. But when you have the right team, you can accomplish anything.

“It all comes down to people. It all comes down to the team. And Mr. President, you have assembled a first-rate team … some of the best, brightest and the most diverse public servants this country has to offer. I could not be more honored to join that team once again.”

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue

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