Joe Biden will begin his presidency with a deeper relationship with Greek Americans, the ecumenical patriarch, Cyprus or Greece than any of his predecessors.
In the era when a 30-year-old Biden came to the US Senate in 1973, a senator from a state with a large Greek-American population, Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania, made clear our low visibility. He told a Greek American, “I don’t have any Greek Americans in my state.” Yet when that Greek American raised the subject with newly elected Biden, he responded, “I know them well; they were very helpful in my election.” Biden began way ahead of the curve.
As Biden settled into the Senate, Turkey invaded Cyprus and we nascent Hellenes burst onto Capitol Hill and into the national awareness. Biden was in the thick of it, doing everything to support the legislation of his colleague down the hall, Senator Thomas Eagleton, to terminate military aid to Turkey. That effort, led in the House by Congressmen Paul Sarbanes and John Brademas, beat the White House on a major foreign policy effort for the only time in modern history.
No senator met with more Hellenic groups who came to Washington than Biden. And no senator endeared himself more by humbly saying to Hellenes, who were bursting with pride about their first US senator, Paul Sarbanes, “I just do whatever Paul tells me.”
As the decades passed, Biden, like Senator Bob Menendez today, arose from among the 4,000 non-Hellenic senators and members over that era to be a major leader on Orthodox and Hellenic issues. For example, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, with Tony Blinken as his chief of staff, Biden’s letter to the president about the Ecumenical Patriarchate garnered a record-setting number of US senators’ signatures – 75. His focus stayed the same as vice president. He is the only sitting vice president in history to visit the Ecumenical Patriarchate, where he went twice. He is also the only one to visit Cyprus. No other US official has Biden’s relationship with His All Holiness, whom he once described as one of the two most “Christ-like” people he had ever met. Biden’s unusual reaction to an article referring to him as “Bidenopoulos” was typical for him. He framed it and hung it on his wall. He shares Greek philotimo to the degree that he brought his grandchildren to the Washington Oxi Day celebration to learn about philotimo and the principle of risking and giving everything to “do the right thing.”
Biden moved Hellenes to the degree that when he ran for president against then Senator Barack Obama in 2008, Hellenes formed the “$2,400 club” – that number was the maximum a contributor could give to a candidate. They raised 15% of his presidential campaign kitty, even though Hellenes are only 0.4% of the population. And the largest single contributor to Biden’s campaign for president this year is a Hellene.
Unbeknownst to many, as vice president, Biden continued behind the scenes to strongly promote his American and Hellenic values. During President Obama’s first six years in office, hoping to shape Turkey into the world’s “model” Muslim democracy, Obama spoke on the phone more with Recep Tayyip Erdogan than any other prime minister or president. After Obama gave up on Erdogan, Biden took over, and for two years, with Blinken at his side, he tried everything to move Erdogan in the right direction. For this and other reasons, Biden takes over American foreign policy knowing 10 times more about Erdogan’s limitations than any other president or foreign policy expert.
A number of factors will determine what Joe Biden can achieve on issues dear to Hellenes and Orthodox Christians. However, the last time someone like Biden was president – Bill Clinton – and someone like Blinken was involved in European policy – Dick Holbrooke: 1) Albania released the Omonia Five from prison and execution; 2) the then Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia removed language from their constitution that threatened Greece; 3) Turkish troops were moved off the Greek islet of Imia; 4) the first sitting US president visited the Ecumenical Patriarchate; and 5) Germany’s and France’s objections to Cyprus’ early accession to the EU were changed, in order to end fears of Turkey taking the rest of the island.
In light of Erdogan’s recent anti-American actions dramatically changing America’s view of Turkey and Biden’s record on these matters, there is no doubt but that his administration will be historic for the Hellenic and Orthodox community.
Andy Manatos is CEO of Manatos & Manatos and a former assistant secretary of commerce.