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New 'Ebola Czar' Has Political, Not Public Health, Background

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The U.S. now has an Ebola czar. Now, that isn't Ron Klain's actual title - it's Ebola response coordinator. He'll be coordinating the Obama administration's response to the deadly disease. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith has more now on the man behind the title.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Ron Klain isn't a doctor or a public health expert. But one former colleague describes him as one of the most capable people he's ever encountered. And that's why the president picked him to manage an Ebola response that until now hasn't inspired much confidence. White House press secretary Josh Earnest.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSH EARNEST: What we were looking for is not an Ebola expert, but rather an implementation expert. And that's exactly what Ron Klain is.

KEITH: Klain is a lawyer and a longtime Democratic operative. He was chief of staff to both Vice President Al Gore and the current veep, Joe Biden. He was also a top lawyer on the Gore campaign's recount team following the 2000 election. Kevin Spacey played him in the HBO movie "Recount."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RECOUNT")

KEVIN SPACEY: (As Ron Klain) No, no. Mr. Vice President, please, please sir, listen to me. You cannot concede. Not yet, sir.

KEITH: Former Clinton administration official Jack Quinn has known and worked with Klain for more than two decades.

JACK QUINN: He's as good as it gets in government.

KEITH: Klain is taking leave from his job as president of a Washington-based venture capital firm, but spent much of his career in government. As Quinn sees it, this is a management job. And Klain knows how to manage, medical degree or not. Quinn says he was relieved when he heard President Obama had picked Klain.

QUINN: I felt for the first time in several weeks that this is now going to be under the care of the kind of person who can get a complicated, difficult, challenging job like this done and see it through to the end.

KEITH: The response coming from Republican circles is overwhelmingly negative. John Fleming is a congressman from Louisiana and also a physician.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN FLEMING: What we're doing is inserting a highly political figure in a situation that's not political at all. And it shows that the president really perceives this as a public relations problem rather than a public health problem.

KEITH: Fleming wants to see an Ebola Czar with a public health background. Pennsylvania Republican Tim Murphy led a three-hour long House hearing yesterday on the Ebola response with the nation's top public health officials.

REPRESENTATIVE TIM MURPHY: And not one of them said could you please appoint a former campaign worker to tell us what to do?

KEITH: Asked what he'd like to see from Klain, Murphy was stumped.

MURPHY: I don't think he can set policy. He certainly can't make medical informed decisions. He doesn't have experience in epidemiology or disease control. I don't know what he's going to do.

KEITH: The press secretary, Josh Earnest, chalked these criticisms up to election-year efforts to score political points. He says Klain will be coordinating the Ebola response across a number of government agencies. But ultimately, Earnest said, the buck stops with the president. Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.