By Mady Johnson – [email protected]
The 100th Politics and a Pint welcomed the return of alumnus Denis McDonough ‘92, former White House Chief of Staff to President Barack Obama. The event was held Tuesday, March 14 in Pellegrene Auditorium at St. John’s. Fellow Johnnie alumnus, Dr. Matt Lindstrom ‘92, conducted the interview. Lindstrom is a political science professor at St. John’s and Director of the Eugene J. McCarthy Center for Public Policy and Civic Engagement.
Typically, Politics and a Pint is hosted in Brother Willie’s Pub. However, McDonough’s high-profile status and the limited amount of time organizers had to prepare for his arrival required that the session be held in Pellegrene.
According to Politics and a Pint Student Coordinator senior Peter Dudziak, McDonough’s and Lindstrom’s center-stage conversation drew over 400 people to the auditorium. Students, faculty and outside guests flooded the space which seats 300, setting the new attendance record for Politics and a Pint. The average attendance for sessions is around 86 people, Dudziak said.
Many people were left standing or sitting against perimeter walls throughout the hour-long discussion and some were asked to leave because of fire code violations.
There were also special guests in attendance. Former Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and current Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon were in the audience to hear McDonough speak. Both men participated in Politics and a Pint sessions in the past.
Lindstrom’s interview with McDonough centered mainly on addressing intense political issues and inquired about his career at the White House.
Though the Q&A remained largely serious, it was laced with humor and casual conversation. The mixture of witty dialogue and intense political topics conveyed a constructive, yet relaxed atmosphere customary of Politics and a Pint.
Dudziak, who participated in the Political Science Department’s Washington D.C. Summer Study program last summer, spoke about meeting McDonough in the west wing.
“[McDonough] brought out this bowl of apples. He had them on the big conference table and he was like, ‘Help yourself to these apples, I took them from Joe Biden’s office.’ So, he stole some apples from Joe Biden to give to Bennies and Johnnies. If that doesn’t tell you commitment to the students, nothing will.”
“Whether it’s our college presidents or the summer interns, he always made time. Every single year he made time to meet with our students,” Lindstrom said.
During the discussion, McDonough often traced his success to valuable connections he made with St. John’s monks, professors and alumni. He also spoke highly of football coach John Gagliardi.
“The beauty of John Gagliardi’s thing, you know his philosophy, was he trusted his players to understand the system and to run the system. And, the system only worked if 11 people were doing what they all committed to each other to do. That happens to be true if you’re running a good institution too,” McDonough said. “Incidentally, I also believe that you can apply that more broadly, even to the country.”
McDonough now returns the favor many years later by creating his own connections with students as an alumnus. He made many connections during his eight years in the White House with students who participated in the summer internship program.
Both Dudziak and Lindstrom elaborated further on McDonough’s link with St. Ben’s and St. John’s after his visit.
“Denis, he’s a Johnnie. He’s not just some dignified guy out in the distance. You know he’s a Johnnie,” Dudziak said. “He’s just been giving back so much to the students, and so I think that made the ask for him to come back and do this even easier, because we know he likes helping the students. He likes to engage them, to give them opportunities.”
“The first place he came after the White House was St. John’s and St. Ben’s. You know, that speaks volumes about his love of these schools. It also speaks to the fact that we are a community and that he wants to continue to give back to the place that helped create who he is,” Lindstrom said.
While visiting St. John’s, McDonough encouraged students to branch out in to the world and pursue their goals, no matter how large.
“Look man, this is America,” McDonough said. “Literally the sky is the limit when you leave here.”
It is evident though, that despite his individual success he did not lose his appreciation for the place he got his start.
“Coming to St. John’s is a lot like coming home,” McDonough said.
Feature Photo: JULIA ECKART • [email protected]