Tom Donilon was in his third year at University of Virginia Law School when he sat down to lunch with a friend in Washington, D.C.
By this point – the spring of 1985 – Donilon’s resume already included a degree from Catholic University and a job at the White House of Jimmy Carter. He intended to start a political consulting firm after his time at UVA Law.
While such a proposed future seemed rewarding, Donilon’s lunch companion offered an alternative.
“Why would you do that?” asked Warren Christopher. “You could come work in my law firm.”
Christopher, Under Secretary of State under Carter, knew Donilon well – and Donilon considered Christopher a mentor. Trust on both sides led Donilon to quickly join Christopher’s prestigious O’Melveny & Myers firm.
Donilon, who later served in the Clinton (as U.S. State Department chief of staff) and Obama (as national security adviser) administrations, told this story to a class of college students. UVA on Jan. 3, the first day of a January Quarter Leadership Course titled “President Biden’s Freshman Year.”
Twelve fourth-year students, selected by professors Bill Antholis and Dave Burke from a field of 50 applicants, had the chance to interview a series of prominent leaders from various fields – including the executive and legislative branches, the media and the non-profit organizations.
The 18-person bipartisan guest list included the likes of Donilon; Irish Ambassador to the United States Daniel Mulhall; Jennifer Klein, co-chair of President Biden’s Gender Policy Council; John Bridgeland, former UVA law student, former domestic policy adviser to President George W. Bush; Kyle Matous, former chief of staff to U.S. Representative Pete Sessions; Politics co-founder John Harris; US Senator Tim Kaine; and Tim HeaphyAVU alumnus and University General Counsel, currently on furlough to serve as Principal Investigator for the Jan. 6 Commission.
“These are fireside chats,” said Burke, an UVA alumnus and Miller Center board member. “Children can ask anything they want from these world leaders, these national leaders. If they want to ask about Biden’s freshman year, fine, but most of these kids want to know how these people got to where they are, how they’re dealing with what’s going on in the world right now.
The title of the course connects it to AVU’s Miller Center of Public Affairs and its focus on the first year of the presidencies.
“We use it as a framework to assess leadership,” said Antholis, director and CEO of the Miller Center.
On Thursday, the Miller Center and the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at UVA are co-sponsoring “President Biden’s First Year” a two-hour event with a panel analyzing home affairs and priorities and another focusing on foreign policy and national security. Participants come from both political parties.
While Donilon was asked for his thoughts on Biden’s transition, he also offered insight into his upbringing as students were intrigued by the Providence, Rhode Island native’s rise in public office.
That lunch meeting with Christopher? It was paramount to his career, Donilon said.
“Over time, he changed the whole trajectory of my career,” he said. “And I ended up being his chief of staff when he was secretary of state (under Clinton). … I think I was a much better public servant because I was a lawyer and I was in the private sector I think the skills you have as a lawyer of attention to detail, patience and writing have made me a much better public servant.
It is in these stories that Antholis and Burke hope there will be resonance among their students, a diverse roster filled with representatives from the Batten School and McIntire School of Commerce, pre-med students, residents de Lawn, an Echols Scholar, a French major, and beyond.
“It’s a private conversation with a group of 22-year-olds who are about to start their careers, and they’re talking to someone who’s been doing it for 30, 40 years,” Burke said. “Maybe some of the people they meet, like Tom Donilon, have an opening and get a job with them. Maybe we are creating mentorships.
Domenick Bailey, a psychology and sociology student who was accepted to Harvard Law School, was fascinated by the discussion with Matan Chorev, the senior deputy director of the State Department’s policy planning staff.
Bailey said Chorev took students behind the curtain on tough policy decisions. The nature of Chorev’s delivery caused Bailey to see the process in a different light.
“It made me more compassionate towards our political and elected decision makers to see them as the humans they are,” Bailey said. “On the other hand, it also demonstrated why it is important for us to continue to hold these elected officials accountable. I think we tend to sit down and turn on whatever news channel we choose and see them elated as these larger than life characters, but what we have to remember is that ultimately , they are all human and they are all subject to the same flaws and tendencies that we all have. That’s why it’s important for us to always be there as a safeguard to hold them accountable.
Sophie Roehse, a German national who specializes in foreign affairs and Spanish, linked to Mark Brzezinski, the Senate-confirmed candidate for the post of United States Ambassador to Poland
Roehse, Brzezinski’s lead interviewer, found parallels in their stories.
“I asked him about his background and how he developed an interest in diplomacy,” Roehse said. “Given his Polish-American background and my German-American background, he told his family’s story about his grandfather coming to the United States, basically fleeing the Nazis.
“So Mark was talking about why he wanted to give back and wanted to serve. He was just deeply personal with all of his answers and really honest.
Before co-leading this course, Antholis, who served in the Clinton administration, shared with UVA Today a photo in his office of a younger version of himself and Bill Bradley, the former U.S. senator and inductee. National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. Antholis interned with Bradley during the summer between his third and fourth years as a UVA student.
It’s one of Antholis’ favorite memories because, among other things, it illustrates one of the main purposes of a course such as “President Biden’s first year.”
“Seeing and understanding that he was a real person was the biggest part of the internship,” Antholis said. “He’s breaking down that artificial wall. As you grow, your familiarity with leaders becomes more direct and personal.
“And for many [the students], this will be their first opportunity to get that connection in person. And there’s a certain magic to seeing that happen the first time around.