There have been many fine tributes to former US Senator Paul Sarbanes of Maryland, who passed away on December 6 at age 87. These encomiums invariably note the near universal high regard he enjoyed in Washington for his intelligence, integrity, humor and accomplishments – the latter consisting mostly of liberal legislation he managed, via his other attributes, to get Republicans to support. They include, while a young House member, the articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon and, in the Senate, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which toughened regulations and created government oversight of corporate accounting practices after the Enron debacle. He also served on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee for decades with Joe Biden and was a boss and mentor to a number of the president-elect’s senior advisers, including Antony Blinken, his nominee for secretary of state.
But I want to focus on another set of his deeds – ones associated with his role as the leading Greek American in Congress. They begin with what has come to be known as the “Sarbanes Rule.”
The rule dictates that “any Greek-American awards dinner should conclude on the same day it begins.” The senator devised this dictate after patiently sitting through countless such dinners. They would go on interminably due to the fact that the organizers, wanting to acknowledge as many benefactors as possible, would bring to the podium a speaker (usually a wealthy Greek-American businessman) whose job it was to introduce another such speaker, who would then introduce another speaker, who would finally present the award to the person who would then speak, typically at some length (these are Greeks we’re talking about).
Since multiple honors were bestowed on any given evening, the result was awards ceremonies that began with cocktails at 6 p.m. but wouldn’t end until well after midnight. At which point the priest would give the benediction, the color guard would march the US and Greek flags out of the ballroom, the bouzouki band would come out, and everyone would dance for several more hours. Having attended these events regularly in DC from the 1990s until Covid-19, I can attest that after the senator introduced his rule about a decade ago, the proceedings tightened considerably, with the dancing commencing at a more civilized 10 p.m.
It was at one of these dinners that I got to know Sarbanes personally when my late wife Kukula found herself seated next to him. She asked him what kind of cocktail he liked and went to the bar to fetch it. The two of them spent the rest of the evening animatedly chatting about foreign affairs – Kuku, a journalist and the daughter of a diplomat, had strong and informed views on the subject. Our hosts Manny and Marilyn Rouvelas must have noticed, because the next year the place cards showed that Kuku was again seated next to the senator. When she saw Sarbanes walk into the ballroom, she went to the bar and, remembering his drink of choice (it was one of her superpowers), had it waiting for him when he arrived at the table. He was charmed and delighted; she felt the same about him. For years thereafter the two of them were annual dinner mates. There were far more powerful people in the room than Kuku, but the fact that Sarbanes was content to spend the evening talking with her told me everything I needed to know about his character.
“Unlike many of his contemporary officeholders, Mr Sarbanes was uncomfortable with the backslapping, glad-handing and grandstanding that often go with public office,” his Washington Post obituary reads. “He avoided the social and party circuit in the nation’s capital and rarely spent a night in Washington, preferring instead to drive home to his wife and children in Baltimore.” At these Greek dinners, however, Sarbanes was in his element. While other politicians would drop by (it was a target-rich donor environment), he would stay for hours, chatting with the scores of people who would come to the table to meet him, then eventually excusing himself to work the room, table by table, shaking every hand.
The way he brought order to those dinners with his Sarbanes Rule is a small illustration of what made the senator effective and respected in Washington. Born to Greek immigrant restaurant owners in 1933, Sarbanes earned scholarships and degrees from Princeton, Oxford and Harvard. He had an intellectual gift for getting to the heart of knotty problems and formulating wise solutions with a wit that put his colleagues at ease. He deployed this genius throughout his career, often in the service of selling unpopular but vitally necessary policies like the return of the Panama Canal. As former Democratic Senate leader Thomas Daschle told The New York Times, when “trying to persuade the caucus to do something difficult, I would use Paul to bring it home, to close the argument.”
In the Greek-American community he is most remembered for spearheading – along with another young Greek-American congressman, John Brademas – a 1974 House effort to cut off US arms sales to Turkey after that country invaded and occupied the independent majority-Greek-speaking nation of Cyprus. The Nixon and Ford administrations fiercely opposed the legislation because Turkey, a NATO ally, shared a militarized border with the Soviet Union. But Sarbanes, Brademas and others in the newly activated Greek-American community countered on not only moral but legal grounds: US statute, they correctly noted, specifically required the administration to cut off arms sales to any country that used such weapons offensively.
Several of the multiple House votes to pass the embargo and then override a presidential veto succeeded by only a one-vote margin, recalls Andy Manatos, then an aide to Senator Tom Eagleton, who was successfully championing similar embargo legislation in the Senate. “It would never have passed in the House without the esteem Paul and John enjoyed,” says Manatos, now the dean of Greek-American lobbyists, adding that Sarbanes and Brademas were two of the three Rhodes scholars then serving in that body.
The Turkish arms embargo – the first time in modern US history that Congress successfully overturned the White House on a major foreign policy issue – lasted three-and-a-half years before the Carter administration managed to get it repealed. But it was replaced by an agreement in Washington to sell arms to Greece and Turkey on a 7-to-10 basis in order to achieve a military balance in the Aegean, an agreement Sarbanes vigorously defended for years after.
Being seen as a fierce advocate for your own minority ethnic constituency can be risky for any politician seeking higher office. Sarbanes managed to pull it off in 1976 when he became the first Greek American elected to the US Senate (he would be followed by Paul Tsongas and Olympia Snowe). He was hardly a radical on the issue. “I met today with a number of Cypriot foreign ministers” he would joke to friends after rebuffing, say, a group of Greek diner owners demanding he take stronger actions than the Cypriot government itself wanted. But over the subsequent decades, through constant study and engagement with experts on the region, he built a reputation as the man to see on anything regarding the Eastern Mediterranean – from Turkish air threats to Greek territory in the Aegean to the besieged Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul. Greek prime ministers sought his counsel. So too did US presidents, secretaries of state and senior diplomats. “In that cerebral way of his, he would analyze the whole situation and explain to people what to do, who to talk to, what to be careful of,” recalls Manatos. “He was hands-down far ahead of anyone else in Congress in his thinking about these issues.”
People underestimate, especially in the age of Trump, the degree to which knowledge can be power in Washington. Sarbanes did not. He “studied issues himself rather than rely on staff talking points,” recalls John Sitilides, who worked with the senator as a GOP staffer on the Senate Banking Committee before starting the Western Policy Center, a security think tank focused on the Eastern Mediterranean. His mastery of substance gave Sarbanes “the freedom to argue and discern based on his own knowledge,” says Sitilides, which in turn earned him the confidence of senators on both sides of the aisle. That kind of power is typically witnessed only by insiders, though public glimpses of it can sometimes be caught. Nick Larigakis, executive director of the American Hellenic Institute, notes that Sarbanes could be “relied upon to ask the tough and probing questions” on issues important to Greek Americans at confirmation hearings for US ambassadors to the region – an effective way to keep Foggy Bottom on its toes.
If Sarbanes’ mind was legendary, so too was his rectitude. He managed a 40-year career in politics – from his first election to the Maryland House of Delegates in 1967 to his retirement from the US Senate in 2007 – without a hint of personal scandal. That’s no small feat for someone who rose through the often-corrupting culture of Maryland politics (Spiro Agnew, another Greek-American politician from Maryland, was not so careful). Sarbanes enjoyed a 48-year marriage to his wife Christine, who passed away in 2009. And he was famously averse to raising money, even for his own campaigns. (His son John Sarbanes, who represents his father’s old congressional district, has carried on that tradition by sponsoring the House’s leading campaign finance reform legislation.) Indeed, much of the senator’s career success was due to his savvy longtime chief of staff Peter Marudas, another Greek American who could not only go toe to toe with Sarbanes on the issues but ably manage the more transactional demands of his office.
Joe Biden has spoken optimistically – naively in the opinion of many – about his ability as president to work productively with Mitch McConnell and other Republicans on substantive issues. To the degree he honestly believes that, it is because he has done so in his own career, and watched others, like Paul Sarbanes, do so as well.
After the senator died, Biden tweeted: “Paul Sarbanes and I served together on the Foreign Relations Committee for 30 years. There was no one sharper, more committed, or with firmer principles. And he, too, returned to his family nearly every night. They meant the world to him. Rest In Peace, Paul.”
Paul Glastris is editor in chief at the Washington Monthly.