Former chiefs of staff offer wide range of views at Notre Dame Forum

by Dennis Brown

When asked Wednesday night (Oct. 4) at the Notre Dame Forum about the most important job of a White House chief of staff, Andrew Card joked: “The greatest challenge is the care and feeding of the president.”

Card, chief of staff for President George W. Bush, then added: “Seriously, the most important thing is to make sure the president is in a good mood. I never wanted the president to make a decision when he was in a bad mood. The president never makes an easy decision.”

Denis McDonough, chief of staff to President Barack Obama, added: “The most important thing is make sure you’re sensitive to the president’s time. Don’t overload him with decisions he doesn’t need to make.”

The two men spoke to an audience of more than 1,100 as part of the 2017 Notre Dame Forum, “Going Global: Exploring the Challenges and Opportunities of Globalization.” They focused their remarks on foreign policy from their perspectives as chief confidants to Bush and Obama.

However, moderator Maura Policelli from Notre Dame’s new Keough School of Global Affairs did take time to ask about their thoughts on the current administration.

Without mentioning the communications practices of President Donald J. Trump, Card, a Republican, quickly responded: “I have a rule: Taste your words before you spit them out. The words that a president uses are very, very significant. They impact the White House staff, they create a climate that Congress then has to consider, they motivate people, they generate emotions and they sometimes call others to action.

“It is critical that presidents be careful with the words they use and not be impulsive.

“I give the (current) White House poor marks for decisions with words and high marks for internal discipline within the White House staff. I’m not sure the discipline has extended into the Oval Office as it should.”

McDonough added: “One of the things that used to drive me crazy inside the White House was the commentary on how things got done and less on what gets done. So, I will reserve my judgments and wait for the results.

“But, I think there’s enough to be concerned about. I want, as Andy said, the president and (current chief of staff) John Kelly to succeed because I want to make sure the country succeeds. If we continue on this path with climate change or North Korea, for example, then I’m afraid we won’t.”

Card and McDonough were integrally involved in two of the most historic events in recent U.S. history and the nation’s war on terror. Card whispered, “America is under attack” into Bush’s ear on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when the president was meeting with a group of second grade students at a Florida school.

Before becoming chief of staff, McDonough served as deputy national security adviser. It was in that role that he was among the small group joining Obama in the White House Situation Room on May 1, 2011, when Navy SEALs raided Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan.

With those seismic events in mind, a student in the audience asked Card and McDonough about their views on Islamophobia in the wake of 9/11.

“We worked very hard to show that Islam has many good things in its faith and that this was not a campaign against Muslims,” Card said. “(Bush) tried to overcome any bias that was created because of the attacks. It was a hard thing to do and took a lot of work on behalf of the president.

“We are a nation that is a true melting pot in every sense of the word. Most other nations don’t understand that. It’s important to demonstrate that we can be one nation with many different faces and that all people are welcome and none are excluded.”

“A fundamental strength of America is our diversity,” McDonough said. “It’s incumbent on all of us to protect that. I am concerned about the state of discourse [in the nation today] to divide us along religious, ethnic and political lines. Our history shows that it weakens us when we do that.”

In response to a student question about the role of the Catholic Church in globalization, both Card and McDonough offered earnest responses.

“In a lot of ways, the Catholic Church is the first multi-national that has reached across the world and has been, in countless cases, a symbol for renewed opportunities through education and growth for people,” said McDonough, a Catholic. “So, I don’t see an ability to get our hands around globalization without the Catholic Church and other institutions of faith maintaining a very powerful engagement in questions of public policy and questions of common good.

“It’s precisely Church teaching and the belief in the dignity of every individual human made in the image of God that will get us refocused on a globalization that means increased opportunity for everybody and will get us focused on a series of policy decisions around the dramatic expansion of inequality between rich and poor.”

Card, whose wife is a Methodist minister, said: “I think the Church, and in particular the Catholic Church because they are everywhere, has a responsibility to create a climate of justice and to be engaged. I’m a witness as to how the missionary work of the Catholic Church has transformed, yes, individuals, but more significantly, peoples.

“I just don’t want the Catholic Church to run away from the world. I want them to embrace the world and be in it. The Catholic Church creates a climate of inclusion that causes people to recognize that there is a greater good to do, rather than a selfish good to take advantage of.

“Yes, I hope the Church will be very actively engaged, especially by supporting institutions like Notre Dame and sending students and graduates from Notre Dame around the world to help educate others to the opportunities that come by practicing your faith and contributing to society.”

In a concluding observation, McDonough spoke of this role as an executive fellow in the Keough School this semester.

“I’m very optimistic about our future, and you can’t help but feel more optimistic the closer you get to remarkable students like the students at Notre Dame,” he said. “My goal in being here is to not only feel some of their enthusiasm, but I’ve told them a number of times that Uncle Sam needs them.”

Card is the longest serving chief of staff in history, advising Bush from November 2000 to April 2006. He also worked in the administrations of President Ronald Reagan and President George H.W. Bush.

McDonough was appointed chief of staff in January 2013 and served throughout Obama’s second term. Prior to joining the Obama campaign in 2007, McDonough worked as an aide to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, as a senior foreign policy adviser to Sen. Tom Daschle, legislative director for Sen. Ken Salazar, and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Since its establishment in 2005, the Notre Dame Forum has featured major talks by leading authorities on complex issues, including the role of the presidential debates in our political process, immigration, sustainability, global health, the global marketplace, K-12 education, women in leadership, and the place of faith in a pluralistic society.

More information on the Notre Dame Forum is available at forum.nd.edu.