The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In 1996, Trump adviser Jason Miller was a media-friendly frat boy who knew how to party

George Washington University students shotgun cans of beer at a Sigma Alpha Epsilon party in September 1996. Unclear if any of these chests belonged to future Trump strategist Jason Miller, who was the Washington Post’s host that night. (Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post)
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They grow up so fast. Today, Jason Miller is a senior communications adviser for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. But just 20 years ago, he was a bright-eyed senior at George Washington University — and a major character in a Washington Post story about the raging fraternity party scene there.

The Princeton Review had just named GWU the No. 2 “party school” in the country, and we were skeptical — Foggy Bottom, really? But as we began our exploration one night in September 1996, we encountered Miller on the steps of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity — and he promised a rager if we came back at 1:45 a.m.

“We had 950 people here a couple weeks ago,” he told us proudly.

University officials warned us that SAE was a banned fraternity — “very banned” — owing to “thuggish behavior.” (“We have no ability to control this group,” said an assistant dean.) But Miller could not have been nicer, and we took him up on his invitation, and returned with a photographer. The rest of Foggy Bottom was dead, but a party had magically materialized

The frat brothers show off for the girls and the cameras, ripping off shirts and chugging beers. . .  Jason Miller surveys the crowd like a proud father. “It’s my senior year so I’m going to party,” he says. Miller says he’s got a 3.0 average, a major in political science and a job as a staff assistant in Sen. Slade Gorton’s (R-Wash.) office on Capitol Hill. He will become a lawyer and probably a politician some day. Life is good.

In the following two decades, Miller became a top Republican strategist working for former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, Rep. Mark Sanford, Sen. Ted Cruz and, since June, Trump. Miller told us this week that while at GWU he got a great education, jump-started his professional career — and learned a few tricks about journalism.

But just for fun, let’s go back to that Wednesday night in Foggy Bottom.

Party Hardly: Looking for a bash at top-ranked GWU? Better wear your walking shoes

By Roxanne Roberts
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 20, 1996

We begin with the Quest: a noble pursuit in the tradition of Percival’s search for the Holy Grail or Diogenes’ hunt for an honest man. A quest in which the process of discovery enriches the soul and expands the mind. A transcendental journey, at the very heart of the academic experience.

The object of our quest: a really, really great party at George Washington University.

The search was prompted by the news that GW, one of the leading institutions of higher learning in the nation’s capital, was named the No. 2 “party school” in the nation, by the Princeton Review, a company that coaches students for college admission tests.

This, as you can imagine, came as quite a shock. The top party school, Florida State University in Tallahassee, seems logical: football players, sun-kissed coeds, long, balmy nights. But we found the notion of a sizzling social scene fermenting in Foggy Bottom . . . frankly, hard to believe. We were shocked yet again when further research revealed that this is GW’s fourth year on the guide’s list of Top 10 party schools. It placed third in the previous three editions.

Our mission was clear: We set out Wednesday night to find a fabulous party. Why Wednesday? Any campus can throw a party on the weekend, which officially starts on Thursday nights for most students. But a top-ranked party school should have at least one noisy, rowdy, take-no-prisoners bash every night of the week.

[You will barely recognize young Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in these old interviews]

At 9 p.m., we hit the streets in search of the second-best college party in the entire United States of America.

“So, where’s the party?”

Tommy Herring, who works the 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. shift cleaning the grounds of GW, looks up in surprise.

“Party?” he says. “I don’t see hardly any parties.”

We look around. The corner of 21st and F streets NW is filled with orderly students going about their business in standard-issue bluejeans and backpacks.

We meander down the street to Guthridge Hall, a dorm where Carri Sellers buzzes in residents. Sellers finds the school’s No. 2 party ranking hilarious. “I don’t know who did the poll because it’s so not true,” she laughs.

At least 100 George Washington students were surveyed by a representative from the Princeton Review guide, although none happen to be in the lobby of Guthridge at this moment. The ranking was based on responses in three areas: how much students use alcohol and drugs, how few hours students study every day and the popularity of fraternities and sororities.

Here, at least, the survey results meet with a fair amount of skepticism. Not one student has heard of a good party tonight. A group clusters to provide friendly advice. The chances of finding a decent party in the dorms is zip, they say. Only students 21 and older can legally possess alcohol in their rooms, and no alcohol is allowed in public areas. As a result, dorm parties tend to be small and discreet.

“Go to a bar,” says Shannon Dolan. “That’s where I would go if I had the energy.” Someone else suggests Sigma Alpha Epsilon, the fraternity around the corner. Or an apartment across the street in the Dakota, the newest and nicest dorm on campus.

The Dakota, though, is dead. A young woman suggests trying the freshman dorm. They’re still excited to be away from home, she says, rolling her eyes.

[What happened in Chicago in 1968, and why is everyone talking about it now?]

Thurston Hall is home to more than 1,000 freshmen. Students stream in and out of the huge building.

There are bodies everywhere, but not even a whiff of a party. A stern young fellow, who announces he is the resident director, arrives and demands to know our purpose.

He does not smile. He does not respond to queries about campus parties. In fact, he promptly throws us out on the street.

He is, in short, not a party-hearty kind of guy. We move on.

We are on G Street: Fraternity Row. It is dark. Quiet. We spot one lone head in the window of Sigma Alpha Epsilon and knock.

Keith O’Malley is . . . studying. “A lot of people are shocked about the survey,” he says. “There’s some pretty hefty competition out there.”

Three fraternity brothers come pounding down the steps. A party, the party, says GW senior Jason Miller, will be here, in three hours. That will be 1:45 a.m.

“We had 950 people here a couple weeks ago,” he says. His plan is to hit the off-campus bars and then bring everyone back to SAE.

University officials are quick to point out that SAE is a banned fraternity, with no official relationship to the school. Permanently, completely, “very banned,” since July 1994. Of the 17 Greek houses for GW students, it is the only one to be banned — due to “thuggish behavior,” says Jan Sherrill, George Washington’s assistant dean of students.

“We have no ability to control this group,” he says. “We’ve done everything we can to warn our students.”

Duly noted. The SAE boys head out.

“I’m guaranteeing there will be a party here tonight,” says Miller.

We enter a brightly lit town house full of people. A party, at last! No, just the staff of GW’s newspaper, the Hatchet.

“I’d have to say that our party rating comes from the number of bars within walking or Metro distance,” says sports editor Matt Bonesteel. The consensus is that the survey ranking was swayed, not by unusually heavy drinking or the frat boys, but by students’ homework habits. “We’re probably near the top in the lack of studying,” says Jared Sher, editor in chief. “We’re just naturally smart.”

“There’s a lot of classes that are very easy,” says Bonesteel.

Any other year, university officials could shrug off the guide’s survey. But last week George Washington was crowing because it was No. 46 in U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of the nation’s top colleges.

Two unscientific surveys. Two unscientific results.

“Being on the list of party schools doesn’t mean you’re not a good school,” says Rob Cohen, president of Princeton Review, of New Jersey. “It may mean that if a student is easily distracted from studying, it may be something they take into consideration when deciding which school to attend.”

George Washington President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is trying to take both rankings in stride.

“We were not surprised when we were ranked 46th in outstanding universities,” he says. “That one made sense. But when this came, we were absolutely flabbergasted. We don’t have a football team, and we can’t find anybody who’s been to all these parties.”

Um, maybe they just don’t invite you, President Trachtenberg.

Whatever. “It’s clear that this is an institution that can sustain high academic accomplishment and good fun,” he says.

“So, where’s the party?”

Definitely not at G.G. Flipps. Our quest for the great party has taken us to some off-campus hangouts.

“You’d want to go to Flicks right now,” says Flipps waiter Scott Kauffman. “Tuesday night is here. Wednesday nights is Flicks. . . . It’s driven by bar specials.”

Flicks, recently renamed Odds, is also empty. Too empty.

It’s early, says manager Manu Arora. We wait until midnight, watching “The World’s Strongest Man” and NASCAR crashes on ESPN2. Not a soul walks in.

We wander to the back room, where a grand total of seven patrons, all GW students, are lifting 25-cent beers.

“There’s no way this school is the number two party school in the country,” says Diego Reyes.

But Reyes, it must be said, does his part. “I have — at the very least — eight free hours a day,” he says. He figures he studies about five hours a week and spends eight hours a week in class. On a total of 13 hours a week, the finance major says he maintains a 2.8 grade point average.

The party is not happening here, though, even when Jason Miller shows up to liven things up. “A lot of freshmen actually study this year,” he notes with regret. But his party is still on for later, he says.

But we need a party now. Two “21-year-old” sophomores recommend Cafe Babalu in Georgetown. “Zac is the bartender. Zac is the guy who knows where every party is all the time.”

We press on. The Odds bartender is asleep when we leave.

“So, where’s the party?”

Here, if your idea of a party is a jampacked bar.

Zac Gregg, a 22-year-old senior, is thrilled that GW is recognized as a serious party school. “I take personal pride in that,” he says. “I’m one of the few GW students who thinks we deserve the number two rating.”

The discussion is cut short by last call.

We end up one block from where we began. It is 2 a.m., and the SAE fraternity’s front room is filled with 50 bright young men and women with too much time and energy. “Now all we need are some chicks and dope,” says one fresh-faced boy to his friend.

The room is furnished with couches that even the Salvation Army wouldn’t take and cases of Busch beer. The frat brothers show off for the girls and the cameras, ripping off shirts and chugging beers. Bear, part German shepherd and part mutt, barks happily.

Jason Miller surveys the crowd like a proud father. “It’s my senior year so I’m going to party,” he says. Miller says he’s got a 3.0 average, a major in political science and a job as a staff assistant in Sen. Slade Gorton’s (R-Wash.) office on Capitol Hill. He will become a lawyer and probably a politician some day. Life is good.

It is 2:30 a.m. Sensible people are in bed.

“Do these look like sensible people?” says Andy Chinn. Well, no.

“Exactly my point,” he says.

Number two tries harder.

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