In November 2004, months before Klein headed to DC for his first real journalism gig at The American Prospect, a Q&A with the website LAist.com showed he was starting to realize that his instinct for partisan activism was best served through practicing journalism. “I used to have political aspirations,” he told LAist. “But over time, I found that I enjoy writing far more. More to the point, I think that the creation of a media environment that can sustain and propel progressivism is more important than any single elected official. I’d trade a liberal O’Reilly (or Limbaugh!) for five, 10 congressmen. The media is as effective and important an agent for change as the legislative bodies, and I think it’s where I’m happiest and most effective.”
A wonk is born
There is on MSNBC this newish thing called “The Ezra Klein Challenge.” When Klein guest-hosts The Rachel Maddow Show, producers slap a two-minute timer on the screen and he races the clock to “explain complicated stuff, especially in the economy”—things like Spanish bond yields and why big US banks need to be broken up. Like much of what Klein does, it successfully navigates the terrain between glib and well-informed, whimsical and dead serious, know-it-all and let’s-learn-it-together. Unless you already have strong reason to doubt or dislike him—and few MSNBC viewers do—you leave the experience feeling smarter.
Reading Klein’s similarly expository Washington Post Wonkbook blog, it’s hard to imagine such tart political one-liners as, “He’s like a stupid person’s idea of what a thoughtful person sounds like,” which is how Klein described former House Majority Leader Dick Armey in the Prospect in June 2007. Klein laughs at the memory. “I sometimes feel like I was a better writer years ago than I am now, or certainly a funnier one,” he says. “I probably wouldn’t even write the Dick Armey line now. I try not to be a mean writer. I really do like explaining policy. It’s not a joke; it’s not a stance.”
The “hinge moment” in Klein’s professional development came in April 2005, when, while still hurrying through his UCLA degree in political science, he mentioned on his blog a new healthcare report by the lefty think tank Center for American Progress. “I remember reading the comments, and seeing a lot of people arguing about Canada,” he recalls. “And I thought, Okay, I don’t know anything about the Canadian healthcare system, or any of these healthcare systems. So I told my readers I was going to do this feature for a week called The Health of Nations.” After checking out a bunch of books at a UCLA library, Klein launched a daily stream that summarized health-delivery systems in Japan, Canada, Germany, England, and France. “I mean, they were like Wikipedia entries or something,” he says. “But I loved it! I really thought it was interesting. And the readership really liked it, too. It was useful information, which was not really something that I was providing for them before. That’s when the sort of thing I like to write about began to take shape.”
The timing couldn’t have been better. Not only had Klein entered political blogging at a moment when digital natives were beginning to reconstitute the opinion-journalism profession, but the topic that fused his passion and wonkery—healthcare—was surging back into the public discussion, as progressive ideas resurfaced within American liberalism.
In 2005, just before graduating from UCLA, Klein was hired as a writing fellow at The American Prospect, which was co-founded in 1990 by Robert Kuttner, Robert Reich, and Paul Starr as a sort of exploration of modern Democratic progressivism through the lens of Washington policymaking. Klein says he knew he had found a home when his first real story meeting ended with then-editor Michael Tomasky telling him to go spelunking among the social scientists to figure out “what’s hot” in poverty. “Being at that place where policy journalism was the thing you did was absolutely critical for me,” he says. “Nobody said, ‘That’s too boring.’”
At the Prospect, Klein wrote about procedural Washington reform, tangled with the “ruthlessly serious” liberal hawks at The New Republic, and continued his path-clearing work in the weeds of healthcare delivery systems. His byline started popping up elsewhere, mixing pedagogy with policy prescriptions. “Think money drives medicine? You don’t know the half of it,” he wrote in The Washington Monthly. For Slate, he debunked “The Medical Malpractice Myth.” In the LA Times he advocated “Going Universal.”