He has a male model’s good looks, is 6 foot 2 and beloved by those who work for him because he always writes thank you notes and lets them know they are appreciated.
He’s a fitness fanatic who used to cycle to work at the White House until he had an accident and he is also a devout Catholic who happens to be one of Obama’s favorite staff members.
He is Denis McDonough, 44, the new White House Chief of Staff who will be the president’s gatekeeper in his second term.
His grandparents came from the Connemara Gaeltacht (Irish speaking area) in Galway and he retains a close affinity with Ireland.
In 1996, McDonough did part of his master’s thesis at Georgetown University on the Northern Troubles. “It was well into the Good Friday process and a very hopeful time,” he said in an interview with Lara Marlowe of The Irish Times.
During the 2008 campaign he led a staff of over 300 policy advisers and was the key figure back then on Northern Ireland and the Irish American community. His grandparents emigrated from Galway; his mother's parents were O'Mahonys from Cork. He is also close to Irish Ambassador Michael Collins.
“When my mom and dad got married, they lived in south Boston, which is where the first six of my brothers were born. After that they moved to Minnesota, which is where the other five of us were born. So there’s 11 of us.”
He is deeply Catholic and two of his brothers are priests. Asked what being Irish in America is about he answered: “In a lot of ways, in the first instance it means being Catholic.”
McDonough’s wife, Karin, is of Swedish and Norwegian origin. “She grew up in Beverly, which is on the South Side of Chicago, arguably the most Irish neighborhood in all of America.”
The McDonoughs have three children, Adeline, Liam, and Teddy. Two were baptized Catholic, one an Anglican. The family attends both Catholic Mass and a Congregationalist church.
His time in Ireland has been limited to 10 days in 1991, when he was a student in Spain, and one week in 2000 when he and his wife lived in Germany.
Referring to his personal popularity when announcing him, President Obama stated, “And part of the reason you saw such warmth of applause is that, in addition to being an incredible talent and such a hard worker, Denis is also a pretty humble guy. To so many of his friends and admirers, he’s still just the “dude” from Stillwater, Minnesota. And given his humility, I don't think people always appreciate the breadth of his experience and the range of his talents. And it’s precisely because of that intellect, that experience, his dedication, his determination, that I wanted Denis in this job.”
Other key Irish Americans are also in the White House: Vice-President Joe Biden is a Finnegan from Louth on his mother’s side. Obama’s likely CIA Director John Brennan’s parents are from Roscommon. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is of Polish and Irish roots,Samantha Power, who also works at the NSC, was born in Cork. But McDonough clearly has the president's ear.
“I provide my advice to him in private and I can tell you that there’s a lot of times when I provide advice that he ignores,” McDonough told The Irish Times. “The American people have an expectation that you will keep them safe.
“The president understands and takes that expectation very seriously. What we’re not going to do is stand up and brag about that fact. We do it every day. So we’ll just keep doing it . . . It’s the determined Irishman in me.”
A favorite with White House staff, McDonough is well liked among them. He is known for leaving thank-you notes for staffers when they have worked hard on a project. Psaki recalls receiving one such note from him for her work on Obama's hectic first overseas trip as president in 2009 when he traveled to London for the Group of 20 before heading to France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Turkey, and Iraq. He is even-tempered and known within the White House as someone who is not a showboater. Those qualities are highly valued by Obama, a fellow Midwesterner who, dating back to his campaign, has sought to keep drama and ego clashes to a minimum on his team.
Athletic and a former star high school football player, McDonough rode a bicycle to work from his Takoma Park home until his wife forbade him from doing so following an accident, according to Bloomberg. The 6-foot-3 McDonough is known for weighing himself regularly to ensure his weight remains below 200 pounds, according to The Times, which likened him to “a Town & Country cover model.”
McDonough is a devout Catholic. He and his wife have three children. He grew up in a family of 11 children, one of whom became a priest. He once told a reporter that he had given up coffee and candy for Lent, according to The New York Times.