Jews at the helm of U.S. Ebola response
The United States’ two main point men in dealing with the Ebola crisis, Ronald (Ron) A. Klain and Thomas (Tom) R. Frieden, have some things in common.
Both are 53, high achievers and Jewish.
Each is well-known in his professional circles, and now as both men find themselves in the national and global spotlight, they are subject to intense scrutiny, including both warm praise and fierce criticism.
Frieden, born in Manhattan and raised in suburban Westchester County, has served for the past five years as director of the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which has an annual budget of nearly $7 billion. In that role he has been under fire in recent days over the CDC’s handling of the care of Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian man who became the first person in the U.S. to be diagnosed with Ebola, and over the missteps that exposed hospital workers and may have exposed others to Ebola as a result of Duncan’s illness.
Frieden became accustomed to political pressure while serving as New York City’s Commissioner of Health and Mental Hygiene from 2002-2009. In 2005, when he was honored for his work as Public Official of the Year by Governing magazine, a laudatory article started:
“Consider [Frieden] the consummate Jewish mom — except that he isn’t nudging you about wearing a scarf so you won’t catch a cold. Rather, the admonitions that [he] slings relate to much more serious illnesses — HIV/AIDS, heart disease, lung cancer, tuberculosis, hepatitis and diabetes.”
Frieden grew up the youngest of three sons of a cardiologist (father) and human rights lawyer (mother). The oldest brother, Jeffry, is now a renowned political economist at Harvard and middle son, Ken, is chair of Interdisciplinary Judaic Studies at Syracuse University, N.Y.
In interviews with the Journal, both older brothers described their upbringing as religiously secular, but culturally and intellectually intensely Jewish.
As CDC head, Tom Frieden lives in Atlanta, where the agency’s headquarters are located, but remains a New Yorker at heart. As The New York Times reported, he always returns from visits to his native city carrying a bagful of bagels.
Frieden is married and has two sons, but is as private in his personal life as he is public in his job, He has persuaded the media not to write about — or even mention the names — of his immediate family members.
Ron Klain, an Indianapolis native, was appointed last week by President Obama as “Ebola Response Coordinator for the Executive Office of the President,“ a title shortened by the media to “Ebola czar.” His job is to coordinate the U.S. efforts to combat and contain the deadly virus.
Klain’s appointment was quickly attacked by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and others, focusing on his lack of medical background, and he has been denounced as a purely political appointment. The Obama administration responded to the criticism by saying that what is needed in this situation is precisely a man who knows the politics of Washington and can draw diverse agencies together in a single-focused effort.
Klain has been a player in the capital’s political waters since graduating from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., in 1983, and then Harvard Law School, in 1987.
Klain has served as chief of staff for two vice presidents, Al Gore and Joe Biden, and is considered one of the best-connected Washington insiders. Already in 1999, Washingtonian magazine named him the top D.C. lawyer under 40.
He headed Gore’s efforts during the nail-biting vote recount of the 2000 presidential election and was portrayed by actor Kevin Spacey in the HBO special “Recount.”
Klain is married to Monica Medina, who was a classmate at Georgetown University and now works as an environmental lawyer for the National Geographic Society. They have three children, Daniel, Hannah and Michael.
The Klains were featured in a 2007 New York Times article on the “December dilemma” of interfaith couples of whether and how to celebrate Christmas and Chanukah.
When Ron and Monica married, according to the article, “they struck a deal: their children would be raised Jewish (for him), but they would celebrate Christmas (for her).
Ron Klain observed, “I grew up in Indiana, with a decent-sized Jewish community, but we were a distinct minority. Not having a Christmas tree was very much part of our Jewish identity in a place where everyone else did.”
The new high visibility of Frieden and Klain has been a particular boon to livid anti-Semitic bloggers, who see the two men’s roles as further “proof” that Jews are running the U.S. government.