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The Polarizer: Following Steve Bannon’s Trail Through Virginia

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When Francis Bannon journeyed from Baltimore to Norfolk more than a century ago for work, the tugboat engineer could never have guessed that his great-grandson would become one of the most polarizing figures in national politics — and soon, a top adviser to the president of the United States.

Now, Stephen Bannon’s Virginia roots are a part of nearly every story examining his rise, including his role leading conservative news site Breitbart since 2012. The site has been blamed for fueling a racist, anti-Semitic, misogynist fringe of conservative voters calling themselves the “alt-right” who have taken credit for helping send President-elect Donald J. Trump to the White House.

So when Trump tapped Bannon to run his campaign and, more recently, act as his senior counselor and chief White House strategist, it alarmed anti-hate groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League.

But if there was any indication he might become a leader accused of inflaming a white nationalist mood for political gain, it wasn’t evident in high school yearbooks or in speaking with the few family and friends willing to talk.

“He’s an amazing person,” says niece Kelly Nogg of Omaha, Nebraska. “He’s a good man. We’re very proud of him.”

Chris Bannon, 79, who owns the Sea Gate Bed and Breakfast in Cape Charles, says his nephew “has one of the best minds I’ve ever come across. All the stuff I’m hearing now is new to me.”

“I assumed he was a Democrat,” says Robert P. Arthur, a self-described liberal and Hampton Roads poet who, with Chris Bannon’s help, caught Steve’s attention in 2000 during his movie-producing phase with a piece dubbed “Hymn to the Chesapeake.” The two attempted to produce a musical from Arthur’s writings, but he says Bannon eventually abandoned the project after disagreements about the cast and directors.

“The surprising thing about my relationship with Steve is that we never once mentioned politics,” Arthur recalls.

Instead, they talked about poetry, theater, song lyrics and writers.

“Life with Steve was frenetic, but I liked him,” he said, describing him as generous but also an opportunist looking to make it big. “I was shocked when he made a movie about Reagan and doubly so when he went to work with Trump.”

“I have difficulty believing that he actually buys into that stuff,” he says.

“I’m a little bit wary of Steve,” Arthur said, adding that he’s “a lot wary of Trump.”

Steve Bannon, 63, has taken a winding path to Trump’s side that started in Norfolk’s Ocean View neighborhood — a blip in his personal biography where he was born and baptized — before it led him to Virginia Tech, Georgetown and Harvard Business School with stops in the Navy, on Wall Street and in Hollywood.

Along the way, he’s written and directed nine documentaries championing conservative causes and figures, including Ronald Reagan, Sarah Palin and Phil Robertson of “Duck Commander.” Briefly, he ran the Biosphere 2 experiment in Arizona.

To find the place that truly shaped Bannon, though, a trip to Richmond is in order.

There, his father, Martin J. Bannon Jr., 95, stood on the front porch of the home he bought 58 years ago, where he and his late wife, Doris, raised five children, with Steve in the middle of the Irish-Catholic family.

Visits from television stations and national newspapers are now a relatively common occurrence, but he waved away a reporter’s notebook, saying journalists have twisted things the family has said in the past.

Still, he talks — affably and warmly — during a wide-reaching conversation outside his front-door on a chilly November day. Both he and his father were born in Norfolk and worked for decades at Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co., and Bannon was a union man before he rose the ranks to management.

Steve Bannon has told Bloomberg he came from a “pro-Kennedy, pro-union family of Democrats.” And they were, says Martin Bannon, until he left the party when Lyndon Johnson was president, indicating Vietnam was to blame.

By the time Richard Nixon won in 1968, Steve Bannon was starting his freshman year as a cadet at the Catholic, all-boys Benedictine High School.

A headline in Bannon’s yearbook noted, “Cadets prove crowds and groups do not a demonstration make,” citing the riots in Detroit, Newark and Washington and suggesting other schools had become more permissive and liberal: “They give students a free hand where a guided one is required.”

Bannon was on the honor roll as a freshman, a member of the debate team as a sophomore and junior, and acted the role of defense counsel in military court his senior year. He joined the German Club, decorated for the senior dance and played junior varsity baseball, golf, cross-country and intramural soccer.

Virginia Tech was next. There, Bannon was elected student government association president in 1975, a year after the Watergate scandal brought down Nixon.

“He was brilliant, beyond brilliant,” says Susan G. Oliver, a fellow Virginia Tech alum whom Bannon asked to run as his vice president at a time when women didn’t often campaign for leadership roles.

“That was a pretty impressive and courageous thing for him to do back then,” she says.

Oliver doesn’t buy the latest characterizations of Bannon as a racist, anti-Semitic misogynist for leading Breitbart.

“Not an ounce of truth to that,” she said. “It was 41 years ago, but I still think who we are is at the core of our being.

“There was not a sexist, racist, discriminatory bone in his body.”

Bannon joined the Navy, serving aboard the destroyer USS Paul F. Foster during Jimmy Carter’s administration, and earned a master’s degree in national security from Georgetown.

After seven years as a Navy officer, Bannon was bound for Harvard Business School. He took a job in mergers and acquisitions at Goldman Sachs after graduating, then started his own investment firm in Los Angeles. Bannon & Co. focused on Hollywood acquisitions for investors, and landed a stake in “Seinfeld” before the show took off.

There Bannon hired his nephew, James Rosenstock, a fellow Virginia Tech alum and now president of Viceland International — a news channel that’s nearly the polar political opposite of Breitbart.com.

Recent headlines on affiliated Vice included “A Running Guide to Trump’s Highly Abnormal Presidency” and “Our Untold Stories: Trans People Defying Stereotypes.”

Oft-mentioned, attention-grabbing Breitbart headlines before Bannon’s leave in August: “Trannies Whine About Hilarious Bruce Jenner Billboard” and “Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew.”

Bannon told the publication Mother Jones in July that the news site was “the platform for the alt-right,” a group he defined as economic nationalists but not inherently racist, despite the term being adopted by some white supremacists.

Jesse Grapes, Benedictine’s headmaster, says he can’t reconcile what he was reading about Bannon with the man he knows, so he looked at the story calling Bill Kristol a “renegade Jew.”

“I get that the title is provocative,” Grapes says, but the article itself didn’t seem anti-Semitic. It was written by conservative writer David Horowitz, who claimed Kristol’s opposition to Trump during the campaign weakened “the only party” that might protect Jewish people from terrorists and nation states that wish them harm.

Six years before applying for his headmaster job, Grapes was a Marine fighting in Iraq and the subject of a Bannon-produced documentary project, “The Last 600 Meters,” about the battle for Fallujah. He had no idea Bannon was a member of the school’s search committee.

“There was kind of this ‘holy smokes’ moment. He said, ‘Wait a minute, you were in my movie,’” Grapes said.

Bannon and Grapes ended up on opposite ends of a practical matter, though: moving the then-101-year-old Catholic school from Richmond to the suburbs so it could expand.

“Steve was the only board member who voted against that,” Grapes says. “That became a little contentious.”

But he says he understood where Bannon was coming from. “Steve believes in the city,” Grapes says. “He wanted us to stay, to be a servant there.”

He likens it to Bannon’s larger political views: “He calls himself an economic nationalist.” S

Virginian-Pilot Librarian Maureen Watts contributed to this story.

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