WASHINGTON - In Barack Obama's West Wing, Denis McDonough directs strategic communications for the National Security Council, where he is known as a square-jawed foreign policy aide in frequent eye contact with the president.
Back at St. John's University in Collegeville, where he helped the Johnnies compile a 28-5-1 football record between 1989 and 1991, the Stillwater native is simply known by his family moniker, "Dude."
McDonough, 39, is the most influential Minnesotan in the Obama administration, sculpting the words that define the president's posture abroad, a foreign policy that demands nuance, engagement, and, occasionally, the grand gesture.
Whether it's in the Oval Office or on a basketball court, McDonough is often the person closest to Obama, especially on foreign trips where he is relied on for discreet advice and as a quiet, behind-the-scenes sounding board.
Understated about his own role, McDonough describes Obama as a "curious" interlocutor who brings a probing mind to his advisers' suggestions. "Everything I've ever given him, he's made dramatically better." It is McDonough's job to work closely with the president on how best to frame the final message.
Obama's June 4 address to the Muslim world from Cairo, the heart of Arab civilization, was one of the moments McDonough helped create.
"It was very powerful," McDonough recalled of the feelings that washed over him as he landed in Egypt aboard Air Force One, going over the draft with Obama and foreign policy speechwriter Ben Rhodes.
Whether it's moving mountains to Mohammed or playing it cool after the disputed elections in Iran, the Obama administration is forging a decisive break with the past, emphasizing mutual respect over unilateral action. To McDonough, the trick is to make sure that policy is heard and understood around the world.
"The president's belief is there are certain aspirations and goals we all share," he said in a recent interview with the Star Tribune. "Insofar as we can figure out a way of fulfilling those aspirations, we ought to give it a try."
McDonough does that out of a cramped White House office he shares with best buddy Mark Lippert, an ex-Capitol Hill staffer who brought McDonough onto the Obama campaign in 2007 as a foreign policy adviser.
He and Lippert hardly evoke the image of softness that Republicans have tried to attach to Obama's antiwar stance on the campaign trail and the administration's current foreign policy.
McDonough's ascent on the Obama team was aided by Lippert's deployment to Iraq in 2007 as a reserve intelligence officer with the Navy SEALs. Lippert returned with a buzz cut, and after Obama was elected, Lippert became chief of staff for the National Security Council. McDonough became director of strategic communications there.
A regular bicycle commuter, McDonough still sports the solid frame of the hard-hitting defensive back he once was, though now with graying hair and a ubiquitous pencil tucked behind one ear. Legendary St. John's football coach John Gagliardi recalls McDonough as a "sure tackler" and a big part of a team that won conference titles in 1989 and 1991. "He's not competitive," Gagliardi said. "He's very competitive."
Roots of a political life
It was that competitive nature that propelled McDonough into politics
He was the third-youngest of 11 children in a civically engaged Irish Catholic family that also produced a couple of priests. The family patriarch was 3M executive Bill McDonough, who died in April 2008, two months before Obama claimed the Democratic nomination.
Denis McDonough was in eighth grade when he heard his oldest brother, Kevin -- a priest at Our Lady of Guadalupe in West St. Paul (and later vicar general of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis) -- give an entire homily in Spanish.
McDonough said he figured "if my brother could learn how to speak Spanish, I could too."
So he did, through high school and college. He spent time along the U.S.-Mexico border, and lived with a family in Spain. After graduation in 1992, he taught in Belize, returning a year later to teach Spanish on St. Paul's East Side.
Teaching, however, wasn't for him. Neither was law school: He went to a Gear Daddies concert the night before his LSAT entrance exams. "Let's just say it undercut my performance," he said.
But hazy mornings-after are not the norm for McDonough, say friends. College buddy Dave Schulte said it is more likely that when everyone else wakes up at 8 a.m., "Denis has already had two cups of coffee, read the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and probably some other paper, for all I know, in Spanish."
McDonough's interest in foreign languages and culture eventually led him to graduate school at Georgetown University, long a breeding ground for American spies, diplomats and foreign policy shamans.
A St. John's alumnus in Washington, State Department worker Mike Zumwinkle, got to know McDonough and was impressed. He and his wife introduced him to their friend Kari. They married and have three young children.
By his mid-20s, McDonough was working on the House International Relations Committee, where he focused on Latin America. Later he went to work for Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, where he met Lippert.
High stress, low profile
On the hustings with Obama, McDonough had a hand in one of the campaign's most audacious moments: Obama's July 2008 speech in Berlin, which was greeted by thousands of enthusiastic supporters whom Obama addressed as "people of the world."
Lampooned by Republicans back home for its messianic undertones, the event was a political watershed that could easily have backfired.
His friends say the pressure was on.
Schulte remembers getting an e-mail from McDonough at the time calling it "one of the most stressful things I've done in my life."
McDonough, notorious among friends for his modesty, downplays his role. "Basically," he said, "they just needed a guy who could move the bags around."
Whether in Berlin or Cairo, McDonough saw the venues themselves as a crucial element in Obama's attempt to repair relations with allies -- or potential allies.
He draws a rough analogy to his upbringing in Stillwater. "If you're a Packer fan, it's great that you stand up in Green Bay and criticize the Vikes. But to really be heard, you go to Stillwater or St. Paul."
A day at work
In the White House, the long hours of the campaign have morphed into a work schedule that typically starts with a 7:30 a.m. briefing and runs well past 9 p.m.
His principal job: to coordinate what Obama says on foreign policy with speechwriters and communications officials throughout the State Department, the Pentagon, and the intelligence community.
"There's a lot of stuff going on in foreign policy these days, so there's rarely a day I don't have an opportunity to work through some issues that we're thinking about, talking about, or getting ready to talk about," McDonough said of his interaction with the president.
But it's not all strictly business. McDonough occasionally shoots hoops with Obama and their families have watched the Super Bowl together.
Some of the tensest moments came with the recent North Korean missile tests, McDonough said. But the administration's defining conflict remains in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where Obama has shifted the focus of former President George W. Bush's war on terror. Despite talk of engagement with Iran and North Korea, the national security brief on Al-Qaida is one area where aides like McDonough reveal more continuity than change.
"I think it's pretty clear that there are people with whom you can't reason and you can't negotiate," McDonough said. "I put Al-Qaida in that box. You can't help but conclude we will ensure that we will take them out."
Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753