Brian Williams and The Amazing, Evolving Walter Mondale College Dropout Tale


In a 2009 interview with the  New Jersey Star-Ledger, Brian Williams regales the reporter with tales from his hardscrabble youth, including the specific events that prompted him to drop out of college. But just four years earlier, Williams told a much more fanciful tale of dropping out of college to the very different audience that reads Esquire.

The New Jersey audience is treated to a much humbler and less exciting tale than the one told to Esquire, which includes cameos by no less than Pope John Paul II and then-Vice President Walter Mondale. Williams’ motives for dropping out of college are completely different, which appears to alter the timeline.

Esquire in 2005: [emphasis mine throughout]

I’ve found the secret of life to be body placement. During a work-study job at Catholic University, I met Pope John Paul II on his visit to the campus simply by positioning myself at the top of the stairs of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. I just figured that’s where he’d be stopping. For me, it’s like some force intervenes. Go forward. Meet that person. To this day, that force guides me. It’s an emotional intelligence. EQ.

It took me from the firehouse in New Jersey to Washington, where I got an internship in the Carter White House while studying at George Washington University. It wasn’t the classic dorm experience. I have no reunions. No one can say they were my college roommate because I was always living in nonstandard housing and constantly working to get by.

One day, I’m at the copy machine in the White House and Walter Mondale comes up behind me and clears his throat. A classic throat-clearing. I thought people only did that in movies, but it turns out vice-presidents do it, too. Anyway, it makes for an exceptionally good morning, and I run from the White House to the GW campus for class. I’m still wearing my West Wing hard pass on a chain, and when my professor sees it, he admits that he’s only been to the White House on the public tour. And I thought to myself, This is costing me money that I don’t have, and I’m a young man in too much of a hurry. So I left school. in 2009:

But then a friend invited him to drive to Washington, D.C., for a weekend, and everything changed. Smitten with the city and its youthful energy, Williams decided to move there. He transferred what credits he could from Brookdale to Catholic University and took a job in the public relations department to help pay his expenses. He landed an internship at the White House, and when that ended, he answered an ad for a clerking job at a broadcasting association.

After his boss introduced him to the head of a Kansas television station, Williams dropped out of school, packed up his car and headed west. “Pittsburg without an ‘H,’ that’s how small,” says Williams of the Pittsburg, Kansas/Joplin, Missouri market, where he started as a reporter.

In the Esquire interview, Williams makes it sound as though his dramatic run-in with then-Vice President Walter Mondale resulted in an immediate decision to drop out of college. Yet, according to the tale he told the Star-Ledger, he did not drop out until after the White House internship ended and he had answered an ad that resulted in an introduction with the head of a local television station in Kansas.

The stories seem tailored to impress a specific audience.

For the coastal elites who read Esquire, the scene is like something from a classic MGM movie that includes appearances from a Pope and Vice President. Our protagonist is inspired to take a big dramatic life-leap after a chance meeting with a Vice President. You can practically see Mickey Rooney in black and white bursting with White House inspiration as he races across campus to quit college and meet his destiny.

But for the everyday folks of New Jersey, the story is a gritty Warner Bros. melodrama. This movie stars John Garfield as a Regular Joe working  a job to pay his own way, answering ads, interning at the White House without incident, until all that hard work finally lands him a job in Kansas. Only then did he quit college and “pack up his car to head West.”

The motivation to quit college is dramatically different in each tale, as is the timeline.

Dan Riehl’s original research contributed to this report.


John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC             


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