March 15, 2017
By Dave DeLand, Photos by Tommy O'Laughlin '13
The journey that brought Denis McDonough ’92 from Saint John’s University to the White House brought him back again Tuesday, and his return to Collegeville was everything he imagined it would be.
“Coming to Saint John’s is a lot like coming home,” McDonough said during his 70-minute interview with CSB/SJU political science professor Matt Lindstrom before an overflow “Politics and a Pint” crowd at SJU’s Pellegrene Auditorium. “It’s been super energizing.”
That sentiment mirrored McDonough’s reflections on his four years (Jan. 20, 2013-Jan. 20, 2017) as President Barack Obama’s White House Chief of Staff, a period when he played a vital role and had an insider’s perspective during a critical time in U.S. history.
“The whole thing is awe-inspiring,” said an uncharacteristically relaxed McDonough, 47, who wore a plaid shirt, gray sweater, khakis and hiking shoes and occasionally sipped a beer (it was the 100th session of “Politics and a Pint,” normally held at Brother Willie’s Pub). “I’ll always be extraordinarly grateful.”
“Character clearly shines through in the way you talked about what you do, how you work with people, how you treated people,” Saint John’s President Michael Hemesath said. “I’d like to think the Benedictine nature of our institutions here played some role in that as well.”
That undoubtedly helped during McDonough’s four challenging years as the 27th White House Chief of Staff, a position often described as the second-most powerful job in Washington D.C.
“Behind every set of decisions,” he said, “there are people who were impacted.”
He handled it all with his uniquely diplomatic but doggedly determined approach. A 2016 story in Politico Magazine described McDonough as a “dove with brass knuckles,” and there had to be a hard edge to his Minnesota nice in an intense job.
“I think the challenge is to be well-prepared so you don’t forget,” said McDonough, who was noted for his meticulous attention to detail. “With great opportunity comes great responsibility.”
An accompanying PowerPoint presentation chronicled some of those responsibilities, showing McDonough conferring with President Obama in a variety of situations – in the Oval Office, on Air Force One, while strolling across the White House lawn.
In one photo, McDonough received a birthday cake from the President. In another, he sat with him in the Situation Room observing the May 2011 SEAL operation in Pakistan that resulted in the death of Osama Bin Laden.
“That’s the definition of Chief of Staff,” said McDonough, who enjoyed a close relationship with a President who went through four of them during his first term in office. McDonough was by far the longest tenured.
He was intrigued by Obama’s optimism and deep belief in the country, and their relationship reflected those shared beliefs. “The good news,” McDonough said, “is I didn’t screw it up.”
His Saint John’s educational and athletic background helped. McDonough graduated summa cum laude in 1992, and also excelled on the football field.
“I’m a team-sport guy. I have some background in running teams, and building teams,” said McDonough, a standout safety who helped Saint John’s win MIAC titles in 1989 and 1991. He also was known for running to work while at the White House.
“Mostly,” he said with a laugh, “I wanted to run from it.”
But he never did. In the process, his family – wife Karin Hillstrom and children Liam, Addie and Teddy – enjoyed their unique vantage point.
“Our kids got to see this up close and personal,” McDonough said. “There’s some beauty in seeing this stuff through the eyes of your kids, because they’re not varnished by the cynicism that so pervades much of what we do now.”
After earlier conversations Tuesday with a “Lunch and Learn” group and with students in ex-football coach John Gagliardi’s “Leadership Lessons” class, McDonough also answered questions about his views on Congress, climate change, media coverage and other ongoing issues.
Some of his answers expressed concerns. But ultimately, Denis McDonough left the White House – and returned to Saint John’s – with a sense of optimism.
“Look man, this is America. Literally, the sky’s the limit when you live here,” he said. “We have to stop thinking we’re victims of something and start remembering we’re from America.
“The United States is the greatest place to be,” he said. “Saint John’s is the greatest place to be inside the greatest place to be.”