What most can’t find in their recollections is the harshly divisive Steve Bannon they read about today.
Interviews with more than two dozen of his former classmates illustrate that many view him as a brilliant thinker, even if they don’t always agree with his politics.
He was gregarious. He was preppy, often dressed in a favorite yellow sweater. As one classmate put it, “He didn’t strike me as out of the mainstream.” Minorities in the class said he didn’t make them feel uncomfortable. A Jewish classmate said he never heard him say anything anti-Semitic.
“I don’t think there’s a racist bone in his body,” said Thomas Meredith, who sat with Bannon in the skydeck.
But there are also those who say that he had a controlling side that could take over the class, that he was high-strung — and could come across as abrasive to some of the women in the class.
“There was some anger there. He was wound really tightly,” said one former classmate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I’ve lost sleep around the fact that he’s so close to the president of the United States. . . . The women in my section have as well.”
Bannon grew up in a working-class family living in Richmond. While home from Virginia Tech during summer breaks, he would spend long hours working at a local junkyard.
“He would come home looking like a coal miner,” said his younger brother, Chris. “Mom would make him strip down to his boxers and spray him off with a hose before he could come in.”
After graduating from college, he joined the Navy, where he served on ships abroad before working at the Pentagon. While there, he earned a master’s degree in national security studies from Georgetown University.
Bannon was 29, much older than his classmates who entered Harvard after brief stints at banks or consulting firms.
Unlike many, he was married: Several years earlier a Catholic priest had married Bannon and Cathleen “Susie” Houff,a young woman who, like him, was from Richmond and had attended Virginia Tech. They were still childless — a daughter would come several years later — and the marriage would end in divorce, the first of three for Bannon.
Not long after introductions, Bannon asked Vorse to be in his study group, the beginning of a crucial relationship. The two men would grow extremely close, later working together at Goldman Sachs, forming their own financial firm, and joining forces at Breitbart. On election night, Vorse was one of those Bannon called.
Steve Bannon during his Harvard years.
Steve Bannon during his Harvard years.
“Our relationship went from little brother-big brother, to equal brother,” Vorse said.
…The business school distributes first-year students into a number of sections that are about 90 students each. They stay in the same classroom for about eight hours every day, so those in Section H with Bannon grew to know him intimately.
“Most of the time, there is not a right answer,” Vorse said. “These are cases where part of succeeding in business is figuring out what’s important and what’s not.”
“Steve is as good as anybody at getting through the noise, deciphering the issue, and deciding what’s relevant,” he added.
…“In my view, Steve was certainly top three in intellectual horsepower in our class — perhaps the smartest,” Allen said. “But he combined horsepower with logical, well-structured arguments. Whenever Steve spoke, my advice was to ‘listen for understanding.’ That is what I am doing today.”
…Bannon grew up in a Democratic household, and he has recounted how he began questioning the party during the Carter administration. During his years as a naval officer, he was in the north Arabian Sea amid the Iranian hostage crisis and he lost all faith in Carter.
“You could tell it was going to be a goat [expletive],” Bannon told Businessweek.
By the time he arrived at Harvard, his conservatism was blossoming.
…One female classmate described Bannon as an “alpha male” with a bearing and attitude that made some women uncomfortable in class.
Vorse denied that his friend had any such qualities, then or now. “This garbage never, ever came up” in class or later in their business career.
“Our clients were women, were Jewish, were Muslim, were Asian, were African-American, were Hispanic. My God. If they had a business that we could represent and do something — purple, I don’t care. He didn’t care.”
In preparation for the 25th reunion of Bannon’s HBS class in 2010, the attendees submitted updates about what was going on in their lives.
Bannon wrote about how, after more than 20 years in the financial industry, his new focus was as a filmmaker. He noted his recent film, “Generation Zero,” about the financial meltdown had been endorsed by Sarah Palin. His upcoming film, starring Michele Bachmann, was “a frontal assault on the progressive movement trying to destroy our country. I currently have another half dozen or so films on various right-wing topics getting ready for production and am having a hell of a lot of fun.”
“Looking forward to catching up with everyone at the reunion and signing folks up for the populist rebellion we call the Tea Party movement.”
…The perch Bannon will soon occupy as Trump’s chief counselor and strategist is no longer the fringe of the classroom, or the fringe of anywhere. It’s the Oval Office.
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