It was June 6, 1867 as Greek Ambassador to Washington Rizos Rangavis wore his most official attire to present his credentials to US President Andrew Johnson, who had just taken over following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. As per protocol, Rangavis writes in his memoirs, he stopped by the State Department so that Secretary of State William Seward could accompany him to the White House. After a brief wait, the dapper Fanariot was surprised to see the top official don an old coat that was missing a button and place a battered straw hat on his head.
As they made their way to the president’s office, Rangavis fretted about the “naivete of democratic customs in America,” prompting the practical-minded Seward to ponder the European tour of Ottoman Sultan Abdulaziz and to indicate that its cost was most likely covered by France’s Napoleon III.
More surprises were in store at the White House. When the portly president made his appearance, Rangavis mistook him for a manservant at first. He had also heard that Johnson, who had started his career as a tailor’s apprentice, was naturally and verbally voluble, so when he asked Seward to address the Greek ambassador, he imagined that the president wanted to avoid a diplomatic faux pas.
A few days later, at a lunch hosted by the French ambassador, Senator Charles Sumner asked Rangavis whether he thought Washington should accept the appointment of the first Ottoman minister to the United States, Edouard Blak Bey. The Greek envoy answered in the affirmative. Those were turbulent days for Greece. King Otto had been ousted and George I had assumed the throne, but the interest of the Americans was in the Ottomans, according to Rangavis.
It’s been 155 years since then, and the United States is by far the most powerful country in the world. Yet the intimacy of that first encounter was confirmed during Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ recent visit to Washington. The reception that ensued from Mitsotakis’ talks with President Joe Biden had the liveliness of a party and the speech by the first lady was nothing short of impressive. For a moment, the White House became the Crystal Palace in Astoria, with feasting and music.
The prime minister’s speech in Congress was received with enthusiasm and gave the Greek people a much-needed boost in these dark times. It may have been the highlight of Mitsotakis’ career so far. But now, however, we are waiting to see whether that “excellent atmosphere” he enjoyed in Washington will translate into something tangible.