Hellenism recently lost one of its most important representatives in the United States, Paul Sarbanes, who died at 87. The iconic politician left behind more than an extremely important body of work in American politics and a great contribution to the Greek-American community.
He left behind a son who, following his father’s retirement, was elected to the House of Representatives, where he has been over the last 14 years and is now a significant representative of the Greek diaspora in Washington. Last month, he was re-elected with nearly 70% of the votes.
Paul Sarbanes’ shoes are quite big to fill. He contributed significantly to the imposition of an arms embargo against Turkey in the 1970s; for 30 years he was an effective counselor to successive Greek prime ministers. He was greatly respected by presidents and leading members of both parties in Congress, who listened carefully and often adopted his views. He acted as a useful intermediary between Washington, Athens and Nicosia, and he often kept the latter two from taking misguided decisions that could prove disastrous in relations with US decision makers.
During his long tenure in the Senate (1977-2007), he had become a close friend of Joe Biden, his contemporary (1973-2009). To a great extent, Biden’s knowledge of issues that matter to Greece and Cyprus is derived from his talks with Paul Sarbanes.
Sarbanes served as chairman of the Senate’s Banking Committee. One of the most important laws carries his name (the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, 2002, enacted in the wake of major corporate and accounting scandals). He was also a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee, where he made his most consequential interventions in favor of Hellenism.
Together with House Majority Whip John Brademas and former Massachusetts governor and Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, they were the most important Greek-American politicians.
The Greek-American community, as well as Athens and Nicosia, mourned his passing. At the same time, they look forward to his son, John Sarbanes, 58, continuing his own remarkable career in the House of Representatives, where he is a serious voice for the Greek diaspora. Some have been encouraging John to run for senator.
A few days before his father’s death, John Sarbanes gave an interview to Kathimerini, in which he referred to Joe Biden’s victory, the president-elect’s positions on matters of Greek interest, including his opposition to Turkish aggression in the Eastern Mediterranean, the expectations of the Greek-American community from Biden and his own pride in his Greek roots.
What do you say to those who dispute Biden’s win?
President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have emerged as the clear winners in this election, earning more votes than any presidential ticket in American history.
What is the message of this election?
The result of the election demonstrates that Americans understand our democracy hangs on the precipice. By electing Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, Americans voted to pull our democracy back from the brink. They voted to restore decency and character to our government. They voted for leaders who will unite us, not divide us. And crucially, Americans voted to elect leaders who can feel the pain that so many people are experiencing right now as we continue to fight Covid-19 and recover from this devastating pandemic. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are committed to healing our country, bridging the divide and bringing people together as we work to get to the other side of this crisis.
What should we expect from President-elect Biden with respect to Greece and Cyprus, and Turkey’s aggressive behavior?
When it comes to our Greek-American community, I am incredibly hopeful about President-elect Biden. He knows how important Greece and Cyprus are to the United States. For years, he’s been a strong and vocal ally on a range of important issues – including the religious freedom of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the efforts to contain Turkey’s aggression in the Eastern Mediterranean, justice for Cyprus, strengthening America’s relationship with Greece and helping Greece move forward with its economic recovery. All of these are important priorities for our community and for a Biden presidency. And we’re going to be collaborating as much as we can with the new president to try to advance this agenda.
How does the Greek-American community view Joe Biden?
The Greek-American community – which includes many people who cast their votes for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris – are proud patriots. We have a special responsibility to protect and preserve our democracy and to protect opportunity for all Americans. Our families have benefited tremendously from immigrating to this country and taking advantage of the opportunities that it offered to us. It’s our responsibility to pass on that legacy to future generations of immigrants. Our community is well positioned to partner with the Biden administration to help restore some of these important values and principles that we treasure as Americans.
What does it mean to you, personally, to be of Greek heritage?
As a Greek American, I take special pride in the democratic traditions that we trace back to the ancient Greeks. It’s one of the reasons I am so inspired by the amazing democratic turnout which delivered an historic victory for Joe Biden in this critical presidential election. I know that President Biden will restore America’s promise as a land of freedom and opportunity – an America that can serve as a beacon of hope for so many around the world. When my grandfather and grandmother left Greece to immigrate to America more than a century ago, they brought with them a commitment to democratic values, which infused their determination to work hard and succeed. Joe Biden embodies that same commitment and will lift up all those who aspire to the American dream.