Steve Bannon in College: Grateful Dead Fan, ‘Jerry Brown Liberal,’ ‘Ladies Man’

Far from today’s White House master of dark arts, Bannon the college senior was a well-liked liberal who helped a virtual stranger in need of a place to crash.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

The Stephen K. Bannon the world knows today is a hard-right nationalist and a former ringleader of far-right, race-baiting media. He’s President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration and incredibly powerful right-hand man in the White House, and the liberals’ go-to boogeyman—a Republican “Leninist,” even.

It’s a Steve Bannon who the Steve Bannon of his formative college years would likely see as barely recognizable.

Old friends, acquaintances, and roommates who spoke to The Daily Beast described Bannon in his Virginia Tech undergraduate days as a “Jerry Brown liberal” who was a devotee of rock artists and jam-bands such as the Grateful Dead and Bruce Springsteen. He was a book-wormy-y “history nerd,” an idiosyncratic football player, and a charismatic “ladies man,” say his college peers. He was a force in campus politics who would, with a large pot of coffee, regularly preside over huddles of student leaders and activists in his apartment meetings that he and his college chums jokingly dubbed “The Kitchen Cabinet.”

“I can remember one of [our] roommates saying, ‘Steve’s gonna end up in the White House one day,’” John DePaola, who lived with Bannon for a year, told The Daily Beast. “He was more intellectual than any of us.”

DePaola now lives in Virginia and works as a self-employed engineer and consultant for food-service facilities. DePaola met and befriended Bannon at their alma mater in Blacksburg, Virginia, in the mid-1970s. Like many of Bannon’s past friends and associates, he does not recall even a hint of any of the racism or anti-Semitism that Bannon is accused of today. DePaola does not like his friend’s nationalist, right-wing politics, but “if [Steve] called me tomorrow and asked for me to help him do something, I would go do it immediately,” he says.

DePaola was a sophomore when he met Bannon, then a senior and president of the student government (to which he was elected in a landslide in 1975). As a student, DePaola was associated with the Public Interest Research Group, a left-leaning grassroots-organizing nonprofit network founded by Ralph Nader. DePaola was a member of his university’s chapter, and they came to Bannon for assistance.

“We came to Steve because he was the president of student government—he had a couple rooms, and a secretary, a copy machine, an office, and we went to him and asked if we can we borrow some office space—and he was tremendously accommodating,” DePaola said. “We explained to him what we were doing... and he was supportive of what we did. And we started hanging around the office together, and from that, we got to be friends.”

Shortly after that, Bannon saved DePaola from being homeless.

“Something happened to my roommate situation, and all of a sudden I had no place to go,” DePaola recounted. “And Steve was like, ‘Come stay in my apartment, we have four guys already, but this will be fine…’ He was a big, popular senior, and I was this regular sophomore so I took this as an upgrade.”

DePaola suddenly became a resident of Bannon’s undergrad political headquarters and incubator: an apartment complex, a 15-minute walk from campus, called Stonegate. The five college boys lived in 10 Stonegate.

“We were all Jerry Brown supporters,” DePaola recalled. “Brown was going against Jimmy Carter at the time. I was quite surprised many years later when… he popped back up [in Hollywood and then Breitbart] as an arch-conservative. Honestly, I was shocked… Like, I remember the two of us laughing at Gerald Ford.”

This was the Steve Bannon his good friends knew before he entered the U.S. military following graduation. Bannon’s service in the Navy, particularly during the Iran hostage crisis, reportedly helped reshape his political worldview, making him more of a conservative Reagan-worshipper. Despite The Daily Beast’s repeated inquiries, Bannon would not comment on this story.

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His Virginia Tech buddies all remembered two constants between the Steve of yesteryear and the Bannon of the Trump era: He was a voracious reader and a history buff, and a typically casual dresser—a signature denim jacket and khakis were his look.

“Fashion was the last thing on his mind, I think,” DePaola said.

According to the other residents of 10 Stonegate, student-president Bannon wasn’t much of a party animal—more hippie than frat-boy. “He always seemed to be in control—we’d go to these keg parties, you know because college, and he would go and sit around and hold court, and he always seemed to keep it together.”

Oftentimes, when his cohorts would head out to carouse and drink the night away, Bannon would go off by himself to read books on philosophy, history, and politics.

“While we were out chasing co-eds, he was at home reading [British historian] Arnold Toynbee,” DePaola said. “But let me tell you, Steve didn’t have to chase girls back then. We had to work hard. Steve didn’t have to work hard. Let’s leave it at that.”

Other college contemporaries, some of whom asked not to be named or quoted, confirmed to The Daily Beast this account of Bannon’s early twenties. Two sources independently described him as a “ladies man” back in the day.

“He was well-known, he was popular, he was charming, he was good-looking,” DePaola continued. “He started dating his first wife at that time, but all the women loved Steve. He was handsome, and he had that ability to get [people] to like him.”

When asked about the allegations from Bannon’s second wife that he grabbed her by “the throat and arm” during an argument that resulted in a domestic-violence charge against him in the 1990s, DePaola and two other Bannon college associates said they had no comment and that that wasn’t the Bannon they knew.

“That sounds nothing like him,” one, who asked not to be named, said.

Three people who knew Bannon well in college who spoke to The Daily Beast all remembered him as a “history nerd” who was constantly reading large books by different authors and historians. But the only historian any of them could remember who Bannon gushed about regularly by name was Arnold Toynbee. Toynbee, a philosopher of history and a hugely influential academic and professor in his field, was featured on the cover of Time magazine in early 1947—almost 70 years to the day that Bannon himself would grace the cover of Time.

Also like Bannon, Toynbee was not without his share of political controversy and charges of anti-Semitism. For instance, in 1934, the noted historian labeled Jews as an “extinct society” and a “fossilized” civilization, and he would later describe Zionism as “demonic.” Toynbee also met with Adolf Hitler in 1936, then reported back to the British Foreign Office that he was convinced that the Nazi dictator was “sincere” when he said he had no wish to violently conquer Europe. (Toynbee was wrong.)

DePaola said that perhaps his fondest memory of Bannon as a college kid occurred right around the time Toynbee, the British historian whose work Bannon absorbed religiously, passed away in October 1975.

At the time of the famous historian’s death, DePaola ran a late-night music show on his college-radio station. Bannon, clearly in mourning of Toynbee, approached his roommate and said, “I gotta come up and do your radio show, man,” to pay tribute to Toynbee both in word and song.

“He was a Grateful Dead fan,” DePaola said. “The guy was passionate about it. He said something like, ‘I gotta play this song for the campus,’ so he came up one night [during my show] to talk about Toynbee, and then played “Unbroken Chain” by the Grateful Dead as a tribute. He also did a brief little speech before the song—an Arnold Toynbee salute—about the importance about his work. [His death] really moved him as a 22-year-old.

“I don’t know why ‘Unbroken Chain’ reminded him of Arnold’s work, but it meant a great deal to him and he felt compelled to share it with the Virginia Tech community [that evening],” DePaola added.

Architect Peter Alberice is another one of Bannon’s roommates at Stonegate who still keeps in touch with Trump’s chief strategist. Alberice, who resided with Bannon for the latter’s junior and senior years, has even published a few articles at Breitbart starting in January 2013. Alberice also recalls a young and liberal Steve Bannon; however, both men drifted rightward with age.

“He was a very liberal guy,” Alberice told The Daily Beast. “Everybody was back then. His politics were always liberal [then]. It was a very left-of-center time in America… He had a lot of admiration for John Kennedy, and people in Kennedy’s Cabinet, and the way they all worked together. He had a copy of the book The Best and the Brightest. I read it, too.”

Bannon still has a copy of that 1972 David Halberstam book to this day. The New York Times reported last month that Bannon was spotted the day after Christmas reading the book in an airport, and told the Times reporter he was “having [several people] in the [Trump] transition read it.”

Alberice corroborated the characterization that mid-’70s Bannon was “constantly reading everything he could get his hands on,” and that Bannon would regularly convene what was called the “Kitchen Cabinet” in their apartment at 10 Stonegate.

At the apartment—which included a kitchen, a living room, a small patio, and a couple of shared bedrooms—Bannon would invite various leaders in student government, Greek life, and campus activism to attend his “cabinet” meetings. He’d brew a pot of dark coffee, and then the college kids would discuss not only campus issues, but the politics and world affairs of the day. Bannon would appoint students to different commission, including one focused on reforming the university’s grading system to add pluses and minuses to the letter grades.

According to his contemporaries, the students were successful in that endeavor, and the system was updated. It was an early example of Bannon’s policies affecting concrete change, decades before any travel or “Muslim bans” were written on his watch.

As for Bannon’s past hobbies and interests, Alberice said Bannon was also a huge fan of (the currently very, very anti-Trump) Bruce Springsteen. “When Springsteen came to the VA Tech auditorium, we all went to see him play,” Alberice said. “It was the Born to Run tour, and Steve was excited.”

Alberice has a fond memory of playing on an intramural football team with Bannon. “Steve,” to his best recollection, “played middle linebacker or strong safety.”

“Any time anyone caught an interception, instead of calling interception, [Steve] called it getting ‘an Oscar’... like an actor getting an Oscar,” he continued.

DePaola hasn’t stayed in touch with Bannon over the last few decades the way Alberice has.

DePaola hadn’t seen Bannon for nearly three decades until last July (while the 2016 Democratic National Convention was ongoing), when the two had a chance encounter on an Acela from New York City heading toward Washington, D.C.

As DePaola walked through the Amtrak first-class train car, he noticed that everyone onboard was wearing a suit or at least business-appropriate attire. Almost everyone.

“There’s one guy on the train who is wearing long shorts, skater shoes, a jacket, and a vest, and I thought to myself, ‘What’s this vagrant doing on the train?’ After a while, I look over and I’m like, ‘Jesus Christ—that’s Steve!’”

After confirming that it was in fact his old college buddy by looking up a current photo on his iPhone, DePaola walked over and the pair began shooting the breeze again after all those years.

“We stood up at front of train and just talked for about an hour or so,” he said. “We talked a lot about what happened to college friends. He told stories about his Hollywood days, he’s just so fun to talk to… But I made the conscious decision not to go political. My politics are 180-degrees opposite of his. I read The Nation, I read The Atlantic, liberal-type stuff.”

A few times, Bannon tried to steer the conversation toward politics, attempts DePaola politely batted down, and Bannon kindly retracted. Bannon tried to talk to DePaola about such subjects as the Bannon-produced documentary Clinton Cash, Sharia in the United States, the Drudge Report, immigration, and—of course—the future leader of the free world himself.

“You a Trump guy?” Bannon asked him. (This was the month before Bannon officially jumped aboard the Trump presidential campaign.)

“I laughed, and said ‘You gotta be out of your mind!’ to think I was,” DePaola said. “I just said, ‘Steve, c’mon… I wouldn’t vote for Trump in a million years, the guy’s a lunatic!’ He graciously let it drop.”

Just a few weeks later, DePaola, while again traveling for business, was checking his newsfeeds, to find that Bannon had been installed as the new “CEO” of Team Trump.

“I wrote a two-line email telling him congratulations, shot me a note back almost instantly with ‘Thanks,’” he said. “I think I even made a joke about how he has gotta buy some ties now. He wrote back laughing.”

The two haven’t talked since that brief email exchange. DePaola, who voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, can talk all day about how President Trump is a dangerous “lunatic.” Still, he continues to have nothing but admiration and loyalty for the college boy who kept him from being homeless all those decades ago.