Obama chief of staff Denis McDonough on values learned at St. John's

Denis McDonough at the Eugene McCarthy Lecture at St. John's University.
Denis McDonough, the chief of staff to former President Barack Obama, returned to his alma mater in October 2018 for the annual Eugene McCarthy Lecture at St. John's University in Collegeville.
Courtesy of St. John's University

Stillwater, Minnesota native Denis McDonough was President Barack Obama's chief of staff during his second term until handing over the reins to the Trump administration.

He said a good chief of staff needs to know history, have some perspective, and tell the president the hard truths. "Your influence derives from your relationship with the President."

Denis McDonough graduated from St. John's University in 1992 and was invited back to his alma mater this fall for the annual Eugene J. McCarthy Lecture series. He told the audience America can get back on track if our leaders' actions are based on things he learned at St. John's: "a commitment to books and learning, and facts, and decency, and openness."

The Benedictine tradition at St. John's has served him well in many ways, McDonough said. It values a sense of community, hospitality, empathy, and welcoming. And he said he took the Benedictine "work and pray" priorities seriously. The "pray" part of it, he said, gets you beyond the day-to-day and reminds you of what is important.

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He said the most difficult part of the job was "the volume and the speed." A liberal arts education, he said, increases your "ability to discern, to collate and to prioritize."

McDonough spoke with one of his favorite professors, St. John's and College of St. Benedict history professor Ken Jones.

In addition to graduating summa cum laude with a degree in history and Spanish, Denis McDonough played safety for legendary football coach John Gagliardi. This conversation took place on the same day as the funeral for John Gagliardi, October 15, 2018.

One of the lessons he learned from Gagliardi, he said, was "if you get your shot, or get your shot to fix something, don't fumble it."

The discussion also covered a wide range of current foreign policy concerns, which allowed McDonough to draw on his expertise as National Security Advisor, prior to becoming chief of staff.

The event was sponsored by the Eugene J. McCarthy Center for Public Policy and Civic Engagement at St. John's University and the College of St. Benedict.

To listen to the discussion, click the audio player above.