Commentary: A Fatal Contagious Disease, a Farcical White House Response (Guess Who)

Political commentary by's Dick Polman.

Have any right-wingers demanded yet that Ron Klain resign?

I wouldn't be surprised if some of the hysterics go that route. Klain, former chief of staff to two vice presidents, hasn't even started his job as Ebola "czar" — with solid management credentials, by the way — but the usual suspects are already demonizing him as "a hack" and "a political operative" whose appointment is "shocking." They're essentially contending that the White House is reacting with ineptitude to a killer disease that needs to be defeated immediately! In the words of performance artist Ted Cruz, "The person who needs to be on top of this is the president of the United States."

Yeah, whatever. I'm about to to show you what White House ineptitude really looks like.

The date was Oct. 15, 1982. The place, the White House briefing room. The host, Reagan administration spokesman Larry Speakes. Let's go to the transcript. A reporter has some questions.

Q: Larry, does the president have any reaction to the announcement — the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta — that AIDS is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases?

Speakes: What's AIDS?

Q: Over a third of them have died....I mean it's a pretty serious thing that one in every three people that get this have died. And I wonder if the president is aware of it?

Speakes: I don't have it. Do you? (Laughter)

Q (moments later): In other words, the White House looks on this as a great joke?

Speakes: No, I don't know anything about it, Lester.

Q: Does the president, does anybody in the White House know anything about this epidemic, Larry?

Speakes: I don't think so.

OK, so we already had 600 AIDS cases and 200 AIDS deaths (as opposed to two Ebola infections and one Ebola death) — yet the Reagan White House freely admitted that it was doing nothing and knew nothing. Granted, we didn't know nearly as much about AIDS in 1982 as we know about Ebola in 2014 — but even as the AIDS cases rapidly mounted, the Reagan White House stayed willfilly oblivious and the president said squat about the disease.

The topic came up again at a press briefing on Dec. 11, 1984. By that point, the domestic AIDS caseload was estimated at 7,239 and the AIDS death toll was 5,596. The same reporter had some questions.

Q: Is the president concerned about this subject, Larry —

Speakes: I haven't heard him express concern ...Q: No, but I mean, is he going to do anything, Larry?

Speakes: Lester, I have not heard him express anything on it. Sorry.

Q: You mean he has no — expressed opinion about this epidemic?

Speakes: No, but I must confess I haven't asked him about it. (Laughter)

Reagan didn't say a word about AIDS until Sept. 17, 1985, when was queried for a comment during a press conference; by that point, roughly 12,000 Americans had already died. Reagan didn't deliver a speech about AIDS until May 31, 1987, and he didn't appoint a presidential commission on AIDS until June 24, 1987; by that point, roughly 20,000 Americans had already died.

Would the AIDS death toll have been lower had Reagan stepped up far earlier? Perhaps not — but hey, it's Ted Cruz and his fellow carpers who are insisting that in the wake of Ebola, "the person who needs to be on top of this is the president of the United States."

So, given the Reagan administration's persistent fecklessness, let's try to have a little perspective, shall we?

On Obama's watch, the federal response to Ebola has obviously stumbled out of the gate. But at a time when the national death toll stands at one, he has already named a federal point man. And it just so happens that Ron Klain — cartoon attacks notwithstanding — is well qualified. Those of us who've dealt with him (as I did when he was Al Gore's chief of staff) know that he's deftly seasoned in the unsexy art of public management. He's primarily a policy guy who knows to assemble and run complicated government machinery.

Ezra Klein rightly says, "Actual government experience is badly underrated in Washington ... 'Bureaucrat' is often lobbed as an insult. But in processes like this one, government experience really matters. Nominating Klain suggests the White House is thinking about this correctly: as an effort that requires the coordination of already ample resources, where the danger is that the federal government will be too slow in sharing information across agencies and getting the resources where they need to go." Klain doesn't need to be a health expert; his job is to effectively manage the experts.

So here's a radical idea: Perhaps the hysterics — chastened by Ronald Reagan's sorry example — can shut the heck up for a short while, and at least give Klain a chance to do his job?

As if.

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