Tag Archives: John F Kennedy

When US presidents meet Greek premiers: Tales of high significance and low expectations

White House photo by Joyce Naltchayan

White House photo by Joyce Naltchayan

As he rides up Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington on Thursday, Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras might allow himself a wry smile. For so long an outcast of Greek politics and more recently a pariah among European peers, Samaras has seen international leaders rally around him since he came to power last June. And now, the big one: A meeting with Barack Obama in the White House.

Leaving aside the moment’s personal prestige, Samaras is actually following a well-trodden path, which has led Greek premiers from Athens to the White House over the course of eight decades. Since Konstantinos Tsaldaris left the civil war behind in December 1946 to visit Harry Truman and ask for financial and military assistance, eight Greek leaders have made a beeline to Washington in the hope of finding some succour. In fact, Costas Simitis, who met George W. Bush in 2002, is probably the only Greek prime minister who arrived with something to offer. The ex-PASOK leader gave Bush a new euro coin and a sweat shirt with the Athens2004 Olympics logo on it.

Samaras will be in Washington when Congress is not in session. Some have seen this, along with the fact he was not offered a working lunch with Obama, as a sign that his visit is of minor importance. The Greek premier, however, can take comfort in knowing that his arrival will be less of an inconvenience to the US President than the April 1961 visit of Constantine Karamanlis. The conservative leader was having lunch with John F Kennedy at the White House on the same day that the failed Bay of Pigs invasion was launched in Cuba.

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Ask not

Illustration in linocut by Manos Symeonakis

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” President John F. Kennedy’s words have been repeated, relayed and reinterpreted so many times since he uttered them on a chilly January morning in Washington in 1961 that their inspiration and impact has been severely diluted. They remain, however, relevant — but in a very different way now than they were almost 50 years ago.

The man who helped Kennedy construct this memorable sentence — his adviser Ted Sorensen – died just over a week ago. Apart from signifying the passing of someone who had a deep understanding of public service, his death also comes as a timely reminder that we have entered an era when the essence of “ask not” is being turned on its head. The financial crisis that emanated from the United States followed by the debt crisis that has battered many European countries, like Greece, is creating a new dynamic in the relationship between people and their leaders. Politicians from Washington to Athens are discovering that voters who have seen their livelihoods threatened and their quality of life compromised feel they have done enough for their countries; they now want their countries, and the people that lead them, to start giving something back.

This was one of the messages evident from the walloping that President Barack Obama’s Democrats received in last week’s mid-term elections. It’s clear many of those who voted for Obama two years ago feel there has been too little progress in terms of addressing day-to-day problems that stem from the state of the economy. No matter that Obama, in the words of New York Times opinion writer Timothy Egan, “saved capitalism.” After suffering the impact of the near-collapse of a system they helped build at the behest of their politicians and financiers, Americans aren’t concerned about theoretical arguments or long-term groundwork — they want the basics: jobs, prospects and security, or at least they want to be convinced that these basics are on the way. “Monetary stimulus is near exhausted; another big fiscal stimulus is now unthinkable. Obama has to stimulate something intangible: confidence,” writes the International Herald Tribune’s Roger Cohen.

Although PASOK did not suffer the “shellacking,” as Obama termed it, that the Democrats did at Sunday’s local elections, in what was effectively Greece’s version of the mid-term, it did receive a strong buffeting. It seems the source of this backlash, which saw PASOK’s share of the vote on a national projection fall by 9.5 percent compared to the 2009 parliamentary polls, was very similar to the fatigue that undid the Democrats. Even before Sunday’s elections, Papandreou and his government had demanded a lot from Greeks: They had asked them to put up more of their salaries for taxation, to give up jobs they thought were secure and to shut up if they disagreed. But ahead of the local elections, Papandreou had one more request to make: that Greeks vote for PASOK to avoid creating political instability in the country. He was asking too much.
Having pushed through the Kallikratis program, a much-heralded groundbreaking overhaul of local government, Papandreou and his team did not have the courage to stand by it. They tried to cajole the Greek people into voting not based on local issues – such as who would ensure their streets are clean or even preventing corrupt and ineffective mayors from being voted back into power – but along the same old tired party political lines.

The prime minister said that an unfavorable result would trigger snap national elections. He no doubt expected this to appear a bold move but it ended up looking like a childish stunt. There was absolutely no basis for seeking a fresh mandate: Having signed a three-year agreement with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, the government had made a public commitment to see through a package of reforms that would secure the loans Greece needs to avoid bankruptcy. To put this at risk with a show of supposed bravado, when there was absolutely no evidence of a mass public movement against the government or the memorandum, was an idea mined from the same vein of irresponsibility and self-absorption that brought Greece to the brink of collapse in the first place.

Having leveled the threat of snap polls, Papandreou said Sunday’s result proved Greeks still had “the same will for change” as at last year’s general election. How he arrived at this conclusion when PASOK garnered a million less voters than in October 2009 was never explained. Nor did he go into the details of how he derived a fresh mandate from the outcome when, for roughly every one person who voted for PASOK’s candidates, two people stayed at home, as abstention reached almost 40 percent. The near-record disinterest in the local elections was confirmation that, burdened by concerns about their immediate future, such as whether they will have jobs next year, few had the time or appetite for Papandreou’s power games.

It was not just Papandreou that showed he was completely out of touch with public sentiment. New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras also displayed a talent for getting carried away with trivialities. After campaigning on an ultra-populist anti-memorandum ticket supported by absurd claims such as being able to wipe out the public deficit in a year, Samaras suggested Sunday’s result, which helped the conservatives secure only a handful of municipalities and no regions, was a triumph. He said ND’s share of the national vote, which put the conservatives just 2 percent behind PASOK, was a “total reversal” of the conservatives’ fortunes since they hit rock bottom in last year’s general elections. Well, if Samaras thinks it was a total reversal, he should demand a total recount because the result shows that ND received about 550,000 fewer voters than it did last October and its share of the national vote was slightly beneath its record low.

At the end of a year of unprecedented austerity and abrupt reforms, rather than displaying respect for the electorate and regret for their part in leading Greece to the edge of oblivion, the country’s politicians had nothing to show but hubris and disinterest for people’s real concerns. The result of last Sunday’s local elections was the first sign that the public’s tolerance for making sacrifices when their leaders are not willing to give up their comfortable seats in the land of oblivion is being stretched to breaking point. Just as the Democrats’ defeat in the US mid-terms will focus Obama’s mind on achieving tangible results, so Greece’s local elections should force Papandreou and Samaras to concentrate on providing real solutions to real problems and not creating imaginary ones.
There is a closing line in the speech that Sorensen wrote for Kennedy’s inauguration that is rarely quoted, possibly because it is not in the interest of those in power. “… ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice that we ask of you.” Greeks have every right after being asked for months to do more for their country, to now ask what their country, its leaders and its political parties are doing for them.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on November 12, 2010.

Bringing down the walls

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

It’s one of life’s great ironies that the people who would derive most satisfaction from anniversary celebrations are rarely around to enjoy them. So, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel took ex-Polish President Lech Walesa and former Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev by the hand for a walk through a unified Berlin on Monday to mark 20 years since the fall of the Wall, several key figures were absent.

Late US President John F. Kennedy, who made it clear that America would stand by West Berlin with his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963 is an obvious absentee. But perhaps the person that would have enjoyed Monday’s proceedings most was a man who shared the platform with Kennedy on that June afternoon: the late mayor of West Berlin and subsequent Chancellor of Germany Willy Brandt.

Brandt was one of the architects behind the wall’s collapse. As mayor he ensured his city was a beacon of freedom, as chancellor he used this freedom to unite people. Upon being elected West German leader in 1969, he embarked on a policy of “Ostpolitik,” which sought closer relations with East Germany, the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc countries. While some of his compatriots and many in the West saw this as appeasement of totalitarian regimes, Brandt realized that bringing people closer together would help obliterate the barriers, the walls, between them.

One of Brandt’s defining moments came in 1970 when he spontaneously knelt at a memorial to victims of the Second World War’s Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The gesture didn’t go down well with some Germans but won him many friends in Poland. “His courage was his biggest political asset, his greatest personal characteristic, and was based on deep moral and political convictions,” says Jens Bastian, senior economic research fellow for southeast Europe at ELIAMEP (Hellenic Foundation for Foreign and European Policy). “Such politicians don’t grow on trees, neither in Germany, nor in Greece.”

Brandt’s gesture in Warsaw sent a clear message: we must embrace our past but not let it hold us back. “The future will not be mastered by those who dwell on the past,” he said. His comment came to mind this week when switching attention from events in Berlin to those in Greece, where politicians like Brandt certainly don’t grow on trees. Anyone looking at Greece would gain the impression of a country condemned to live in the past rather than looking to the future.

10_okv_The dispute at the port of Piraeus, for example, had on the one side the dockworkers behaving like extras in the Marlon Brando classic “On the Waterfront,” while on the other a government treading on eggshells for fear of triggering a popular revolution – scenes of industrial relations from a bygone era.

At least in the case of the police, Citizens’ Protection Minister Michalis Chrysochoidis was honest enough to admit that the force is “stuck in the 1950s” as he announced a raft of changes. These came as officers made plans for policing the November 17 protest march that marks the 1973 student uprising against the junta. The event epitomizes how Greeks are so obsessed with the past that they want to keep recreating it: each generation of students feels they have to prove themselves like those of 1973 and even teenagers will talk about an oppressive state when they live in what is possibly the most anarchic country in the European Union.

But even if they want to escape the past, they can’t. The media fuel this obsession with history. They say journalism is the first draft of history but in Greece the media serve as history’s photocopying machine, constantly rehashing, regurgitating and reheating the events of the past through features, supplements and DVDs.

At the center of this historical vortex is the country’s political scene. As the New Democracy leadership contest between Dora Bakoyannis and Antonis Samaras becomes closer, what divides them is not the direction in which they will take the country but what happened in the past – namely, Samaras’s decision to quit the ND government in the early 1990s when Bakoyannis’s father was prime minister.

It’s ironic that Greece’s hopes for breaking the chains of history currently rest with George Papandreou, who wouldn’t even be in this position were it not for the legacy of his father and grandfather. Papandreou is no Willy Brandt but following in the German’s footsteps might prevent Greece from slipping further into history’s quicksand. “Brandt’s idea of democratic renewal after he took office in 1969 was to “dare democracy”, in other words to make West German society more tolerant, open, accountable and democratic,” says Bastian.

George Papandreou’s domestic agenda also reflects a desire for more openness. There are similarities in foreign policy as well. “Papandreou’s openings toward Turkey and Skopje are a reflection of his intention to exit from the past, to understand the past, but not be tied by it,” said Bastian. “In other words, Papandreou’s version of Ostpolitik is his foreign policy courage in Greece’s immediate neighborhood – the Balkans, Cyprus and Turkey.”

Papandreou’s efforts to achieve transparency may be arriving a quarter of a century after Gorbachev’s “Glasnost” and his attempts at rapprochement may be a pale imitation of Brandt’s risky diplomacy but they give the impression of the first, tentative steps toward changing the course of history.

Looking back on the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years later, it might appear that it had been inevitable, but that’s just a trick that time plays on us. The Wall’s collapse was more revolution than evolution. As German daily Die Welt wrote on Monday: “The Wall didn’t fall, it was brought down.”

The walls that hold Greece back won’t fall on their own, they too must be brought down. Papandreou has the task of toppling them. We can only hope he has Brandt’s strength of conviction and that he will finally be the one to master the future rather than dwell on the past.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on November 13, 2009.