Paul Sarbanes was one of the most prominent figures of the Greek diaspora. If you didn’t know him in person, you might get the impression that he was an all-too-quiet, perhaps even indifferent man. Big mistake. Sarbanes had what one might call stealth power. When he addressed the Senate, you could see the respect in the eyes of his younger peers, regardless of party affiliation. During interviews, he would often say that letting someone else take credit for a success was a good strategy for getting things done.
A long-standing friend and ally of Greece, Sarbanes never backed down, even when Greek governments made it hard for him to push an argument. When for example Andreas Papandreou climbed to power in Greece, Sarbanes had to face the pro-Israeli lobby that were handing out pictures of the then Greek prime minister embracing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. A cool Sarbanes continued to defend the Greek positions, repeating what veteran envoy Monteagle “Monty” Stearns said about Papandreou: “Look at his deeds, not his words.”
The Greek-American senator had significant influence on the American political system. He was a mentor for many young – not necessarily Greek-American – staff who worked at the offices of Congress members or candidates’ campaigns. These people learned a lot from him about the Cyprus issue, the Greek-Turkish disputes, Greece and its history. From the higher echelons of politics or the media, many of them now share their appreciation for the late senator.
Sarbanes stood by his friend Mike Dukakis when the former Massachusetts governor ran for president. Together with Paul Tsongas, who seriously challenged Bill Clinton for the 1992 Democratic nomination, they made up the dream team of Greek-American politicians.
Every time that he had to wage a battle for maintaining the 7:10 ratio in assistance to Greece and Turkey (designed to achieve a balance of military strength), Sarbanes was there. The story told by a Greek diplomat who was having trouble persuading a US senator on a certain issue speaks volumes about the esteem Sarbanes enjoyed. At the end of their conversation, the American politician allegedly told his Greek counterpart: “So that you know, in the end I will do what Paul tells me to do.”
When things got rough, Greek prime ministers knew they could pick up the phone and call Sarbanes for some solid piece of advice. His interest in Greek affairs was keen until the end. He was moved by the fact that Greek politicians and others who visited Washington would travel to Baltimore to meet with him after his retirement. Let’s hope that his legacy will inspire a new generation of diaspora Greeks who engage in civic affairs in the US and other countries around the globe.