Tom Donilon was in his third year at the University of Virginia School of Law when he sat down for lunch with a friend in Washington, D.C.
By this point – spring of 1985 – Donilon’s résumé already included a degree from Catholic University and work in the Jimmy Carter White House. He had plans to begin a political consulting firm following his time at UVA Law.
While such a proposed future seemed rewarding, Donilon’s lunch mate offered an alternative.
“Why would you do that?” Warren Christopher asked. “You could come work at my law firm.”
Christopher, deputy secretary of state under Carter, was plenty familiar with Donilon – and Donilon considered Christopher a mentor. Trust on both sides led Donilon to soon joining Christopher’s prestigious O’Melveny & Myers firm.
Donilon, who went on to serve in the Clinton (as chief of staff of the U.S. State Department) and Obama (as national security adviser) administrations, told this story to a class of UVA students on Jan. 3, the first day of a January term leadership course called “President Biden’s First Year.”
Twelve fourth-year students, selected by professors Bill Antholis and Dave Burke from a group of 50 applicants, have had a chance to interview a series of prominent leaders from a range of fields – including the executive and legislative branches, media and nonprofit organizations.
The 18-person bipartisan guest list has included the likes of Donilon; Ambassador of Ireland to the United States Daniel Mulhall; Jennifer Klein, co-chair of President Biden’s Gender Policy Council; UVA Law alumnus John Bridgeland, former domestic policy adviser to President George W. Bush; Kyle Matous, former chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions; Politico co-founder John Harris; U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine; and Tim Heaphy, a UVA alumnus and University general counsel, currently on leave to serve as the principal investigator for the Jan. 6 commission.
“It’s fireside chats,” said Burke, a UVA alumnus and Miller Center board member. “Kids can ask anything they want of these world leaders, national leaders. If they want to ask about Biden’s first year, fine, but most of these kids want to know how these people got to where they are, how they process what’s going on in the world right now.”
The course’s title connects it to UVA’s Miller Center of Public Affairs and its emphasis on the first year of presidencies.
“We’re using it as a framework for assessing leadership,” said Antholis, the Miller Center’s director and CEO.
The Miller Center and UVA’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy on Thursday are co-sponsoring “President Biden’s First Year,” a two-hour event with one panel analyzing domestic affairs and priorities and another focusing on foreign policy and national security. Participants have been drawn from both political parties.
While Donilon was asked for his take on Biden’s transition, he also provided insight on 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 that I was a much better public servant as a result of being a lawyer and being in the private sector. I think that the skills you have as a lawyer of attention to detail, of patience and writing, all made me a much better public servant.”
It’s in these stories where both Antholis and Burke are hopeful there’s resonance among their students, a diverse roster filled with representatives from the Batten School and McIntire School of Commerce, those in pre-med, Lawn residents, an Echols Scholar, a French major, and beyond.
“It’s a private conversation with a bunch of 22-year-olds who are about to launch into their careers, and they’re talking to somebody who’s been doing it for 30, 40 years,” Burke said. “Maybe some of the people they meet, like Tom Donilon, has an opening and gets a job with them. Maybe we create some mentorships.”
Domenick Bailey, a psychology and sociology major who’s been accepted into Harvard Law School, was fascinated by the discussion with Matan Chorev, the principal deputy director of the State Department’s policy planning staff.
Bailey said Chorev took students behind the curtain on difficult policy decisions. The nature of Chorev’s delivery made Bailey view the process in a different light.
“It made me more compassionate for our policymakers and elected officials for seeing them just as the humans that they are,” Bailey said. “On a different side of that same token, it also demonstrated why it’s important for us to continue to hold these elected officials accountable. I think there’s a tendency for us to sit back and turn on the news channel of our choice and see them exalted as these larger-than-life figures, but what we have to remember is that, at the end of the day, these are all humans and they’re all subject to the same flaws and tendencies that we all have. So that’s why it’s important for us to always be there as guardrails to hold them accountable.”
Sophie Roehse, a German national majoring in foreign affairs and Spanish, connected with Mark Brzezinski, the Senate-confirmed nominee to serve as U.S. ambassador to Poland
Roehse, the lead interviewer for Brzezinski, found parallels in their stories.
“I asked him about his background and how he developed an interest in diplomacy,” Roehse said. “Considering his Polish-American background and thinking about my German-American background, he told his family 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 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 National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame inductee. Antholis interned with Bradley in the summer between his third and fourth years as a UVA student.
It’s one of Antholis’ favorite mementos because, among other things, it illustrates one main purpose 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. “It breaks down this artificial wall. As you grow, your familiarity with leaders becomes more direct and personal.
“And for many of [the students], this will be their first opportunity to get that in-person connection. And there’s a certain magic in seeing that happen the first time.”