Costis Stephanopoulos greets Bill Clinton during the latter's official visit to Athens in 1999.
The most important thing for politicians is not really whether their name will go down in the annals of history, but, rather, how citizens feel about them when they are in office and whether they are remembered after the glow of public life has faded.
Former president Costis Stephanopoulos was polite, sweet-tempered and forthright in his public dealings and was treated with a respect and trust that extended beyond the ideological boundaries of his Democratic Renewal party (which was the only party that in 1989 opposed granting television licenses to “dangerous people”) or New Democracy, which he later joined. Even though he was elected president in 1995 thanks to socialist PASOK and the conservative Political Spring party, the unbiased way in which he performed his duties earned him the support of a much wider section of the public.
That is why Stephanopoulos was not forgotten even after his second term in office, which ended in 2005, and even though he was not obsessed with publicity, like so many of his predecessors and successors (some with very little to boast about). In fact, the former president believed his greatest achievement to be the bond he maintained with the public throughout the 1995-2005 period; he traveled extensively and reached out to the people, not in a staged setting or with a patronizing manner, but simply, naturally.
We had good reason to remember Stephanopoulos just last week, before he fell ill, during US President Barack Obama’s visit to Athens. The event reminded us of Bill Clinton’s Greek visit in November 1999 and the speech Stephanopoulos gave to welcome him. It was a speech that was later called “historic,” a term that was well merited because Stephanopoulos did not get bogged down in protocol or flattery and was genuine in his sentiment of respect.
This was not the only incident in which he displayed the stature of his office. He often departed from the prevalent views of his conservative background and was also prepared to oppose public sentiment. For example, he openly defied the popular Archbishop Christodoulos and his “back to the roots” theories; he scolded the public for booing American athletes at the 2004 Olympic Games, telling them they had humiliated the nation; and he also defended the right of Albanian A+ student Odysseas Cenaj to carry the flag during an Ochi Day parade.
In politics, Costis Stephanopoulos was like a cyclist: moderate, persistent, modest and committed. And this is what the country needs, not wannabe Formula 1 drivers with delusions of grandeur.