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Former chief of staff highlights the importance of public service

September 21, 2018

Ezra Sunshine
Evaluating Effectiveness Katie Benner ’99 and Bowdoin students asked former White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough for his takes on presidential performance.

If you want to work in the White House, it’s better to be hungry.

“There are two really important qualities for a leader, or for a policymaker,” former White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough told a packed crowd in Pickard Theater last night. “One is curiosity, and one is hunger. And if I could hire for hunger, I would hire for hunger every time.”

McDonough, who served as chief of staff under President Barack Obama from 2013 through the end of the president’s second term, answered questions for over an hour, first from Katie Benner ’99—a New York Times reporter who was part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team earlier this year—and then from students.

In response to a question about allegations of sexual assault against Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, he questioned the lack of investigation put forth by the current executive branch.

“If I’m the chief of staff of the White House right now, I would want to know … whether the charge is true,” he said. “And there are ways for me to try to find out if it’s true … And so it surprises me that nobody in the White House wants to know the answer to this question.”

In an evening where he remained largely diplomatic about the Trump administration, McDonough noted that the president’s chief of staff John Kelly has “the toughest assignment” of anyone who has ever held the position. McDonough also critiqued a lack of congressional oversight into the White House’s inner workings, which he framed as an essential function of the legislative branch.

“The norm that I’m most concerned about was the norm that made me most angry when I was in the White House, which was congressional oversight,” he said. “Congress can get up in your business when you’re in the White House. And they can get up in your business because the Constitution demands that they do. That they oversee what they’re doing, that they hold you accountable.”

Benner quizzed the former chief of staff on both domestic and foreign policy issues, ranging from the conflict in Syria—which McDonough said he “think[s] about every day”—to the opioid crisis.

He noted that the nature of the healthcare debate has changed dramatically in the last few years. As chief of staff, he said he spent more time defending the Affordable Care Act than any other policy. Now, the legislation is widely popular.

“The Affordable Care Act is polling off the charts right now,” he said. “Democrats, rather than running from it, are running on it. And it could be that healthcare and corruption are the issues that define this year’s midterm elections.”

During the student question-and-answer period, one student asked McDonough about the merits of working for the federal government while strongly disagreeing with the leadership at the top.

In his response, McDonough commended the range of civil servants who have held their positions across administrations of all political persuasions.

“This government only works because of people like you and people like Katie [Benner]. It’s the government of the people,” he said. “And it’s hard. There were a lot of people who disagreed with us, civil servants. And we would have been weaker had they left.”

McDonough cited his Catholic faith as a key driver of his own calling to public service. In response to a question from Benner as to whether the Democratic party had abandoned people of faith, he criticized the public discourse around religiosity as too narrowly focused on issues such as abortion, while neglecting values like tolerance and inclusion. He added that the party should not be so shy when it comes to talking about personal faith.

The descendant of Irish immigrants, he also drew parallels between his grandparents and the immigrants of today.

“I have four grandparents who arrived in this country because they couldn’t stay where they were,” he said. “And they came here, Grandpa was a Marine, because there was nowhere else to go. And I think they, like so many other Irish, but also so many other Salvadorans and Somalis, Bangladeshis and Indians have contributed hugely to this country.”

McDonough’s visit to campus was sponsored by the Bowdoin Public Service Initiative, a program which was launched last year and aims to encourage students to pursue careers in public policy through education, networking and funded internships. It is led by Assistant Director for Public Service Sarah Chingos. The inaugural class of fellows spent time in Washington D.C. this summer in a variety of public service-oriented positions.

Speaking to an audience of mostly students, McDonough noted that there is at least one similarity between attending college and working for a presidential administration.

“You also know how fast four years go,” he said.

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