Bringing Government to Bowdoin: Former Chief of Staff Talks to NYT’s Katie Benner ’99

The McKeen Center’s Bowdoin Public Service Initiative sponsored this evening as part of a broader mission to educate and inspire students with public service programs, events, and talks.

Students, faculty and locals lined up early Thursday evening in the lobby of Pickard Theater to listen to New York Time’s Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Katie Benner ’99 interview President Obama’s fourth and final White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough. One waiting senior said he was excited to see what McDonough would say in front of a relatively small audience.

Benner started by asking McDonough how he had earned his position in the White House. He answered, “It’s not a job you apply for. It comes to you.”

While neither Benner nor McDonough spent much time discussing the current administration, Benner did ask McDonough to grade his counterpart. McDonough described current Chief of Staff John Kelly’s assignment as the toughest anyone has ever had. He added that he saw President Trump as not very connected with his cabinet, and that it was Kelly’s job to build cohesion.

In discussing the challenges he had faced while serving the previous administration, McDonough described a toxic, distrustful environment in D.C. and the difficulty of working with the opposition in Congress. He also recounted choices he had to make in order to prioritize the president’s goals, and expressed how hard it was sometimes not to let “the crisis of the day” overwhelm those goals.

If there was one thing that McDonough could go back and do differently, he said it would be how the U.S. dealt with Syria. McDonough thinks about Syria “every day,” wishing he could have done more to cross party lines and help the country. He noted that President Obama’s approach toward the nation resulted in the Syrian regime acknowledging and giving up chemical weapons, an act accomplished without American boots on the ground or jets in the air. Later, it became “painfully” obvious the regime hadn’t surrendered all its chemical weapons, as it used them against its own people, McDonough acknowleged.

Benner then transitioned to the opioid crisis. She compared this challenge to the AIDS epidemic that President Reagan faced in the 1980s. McDonough responded by calling attention to the Affordable Care Act, emphasizing the importance of access to good treatment facilities.

Before moving to student questions, the conversation circled back to President Trump. Benner asked how the presidency might be changed forever after Trump’s term. “The presidency won’t go back to what it was,” McDonough suggested. But certain norms are important for the health of our democracy: “Politics shouldn’t interfere with criminal matters or law enforcement,” he said.

Student questions were varied. One asked, “What was President Obama’s biggest mistake?” McDonough answered with President Obama’s response to this question: Libya, and what happened after the demise of Muammar Gaddafi. “Ending violence is the easy part, and the hard part is reconstruction,” McDonough said. “And it didn’t work, and [Obama] faults himself for that. And that colored what happened in Syria.”

Another student asked about how technology and machine learning affect the economy, and whether the U.S. should adopt a universal basic income to protect workers displaced by automation. McDonough agreed that the country should be considering a universal basic income, but that he didn’t think it would work here. “Even the components of the basic guarantees right now, the social security net, are being pulled back,” he said. “It’s very difficult in your state [of Maine] to get expanded Medicaid even when an overwhelming majority of the population votes for it.” Instead, he suggested education as a more pragmatic place to focus.

Another question, “How has your Irish heritage played a role in being chief of staff of the White House?” brought laughs when McDonough answered, “Well, it helped working for such an Irish president!”

To finish, Benner tilted the conversation toward a more global theme. She asked whether, as the United States steps back from international commitments, such as the Paris Climate Agreement, would other countries follow suit? Is our country becoming less of a leader? In response to this prospect, McDonough acknowledged that could happen but quoted President Obama: “When Ebola breaks out, people don’t call Beijing. They call Washington.” (He added that China did actually help with that crisis, sending doctors and supplies.)

As we near November and Election Day, McDonough had two things to say: “Corruption and the Affordable Care Act may be the issues of this mid-term election.” And he urged all Bowdoin students to stay politically engaged. “Uncle Sam needs you, badly,” he said.

Photos by Fred Field

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