The unraveling of Greece didn’t begin with the start of a five-year recession in 2007 that is heading into its sixth year, nor the crushing austerity measures that started in 2010 when then Prime Minister George Papandreou went hat-in-hand to the International Monetary Fund begging for bailout funds after he lied when he told Greeks, “The money is there,” – a ploy just to get elected.
It really started nearly 40 years ago with the campaign promises of his father, Andreas Papandreou, a founder of the PASOK Socialist party, who rose to power partly on the back of pledges to bring radical social reform that eventually included hiring hundreds of thousands of needless workers in return for votes, the practice of clientelism, the exchange of goods and services for political favors. Papandreou was the master.
That part of the life of Papandreou, who became an American citizen only to renounce it as he forged a powerful run of leadership in Greece, has emerged again because of the crushing economic crisis that began when his son George, born to an American mother, took power in 2009 and quickly had to ask international lenders for lifeline loans that came with the requirement of imposing punishing austerity measures that have set Greece ablaze with anger.
That’s only a chapter in the life of Andreas Papandreou, 76, who died in 1996 at the end of a career in which he narrowly survived scandal, became embroiled in an embarrassing imbroglio when he left his wife, the former Margaret Chant, to take up with an airline stewardess, and ushered Greece into a modern economic age now on the verge of collapse.
The story of his rise – not of his years in power – is told in a meticulously detailed and deeply-researched biography, Andreas Papandreou: The Making of a Greek Democrat and Political Maverick (I.B. Tauris Publishers) by Stan Draenos, a political analyst and historian who now lives in Athens. He should know. He served for years as the Historian at the Andreas Papandreou Foundation and spent years researching and writing a book that make the often convoluted world of political inside baseball dramatic and revealing.
Draenos took the story on a lecture circuit swing that began at Richmond University in London on Nov. 29, and continued to Georgetown University, the Washington, D.C.-based Woodrow Wilson International Center where he was a Contributing Scholar, George Washington University, Columbia, and winds up Dec. 6 at Yale and on Dec. 10 in Toronto at the Canadian Institute of Mediterranean Studies.
If he can speak as well as he writes, his audiences would be entertained as well as informed as the book is a remarkable work that reminds of Robert Caro’s masterpiece biography of Robert Moses, the Master Builder of New York, and showcases Papandreou – himself the son of a former Prime Minister, George Papandreou who began the family dynasty in politics – as the Master Builder of Modern Greece. He didn’t live to see the crisis that engulfed the country, partly because of what he wrought, and to see the party dismantled by his son.
BOLT OUT OF THE BLUE
In an interview with The Greek Reporter, Draenos said the question of whether Papandreou is to blame for the crisis is complex and noted that, “I am his biographer, not his lawyer,” and added that “Clientelism was not his invention.” He said that “The important public debate over what went wrong would be more productive if it were focused on how searching through the past in order to identify and rectify the endemic weaknesses in Greek economic, social and political life the crisis has surfaced than at finger pointing and laying blame. The latter makes it too easy for we living Greeks to avoid our own responsibilities.”
The book begins with Papandreou’s youth in Greece as the son of a prominent Centrist politician. Following a bruising encounter with the Metaxas dictatorship, he emigrated to the United States in 1940. A graduate student at Harvard University during the war, he obtained a doctorate in economics. He then pursued a flourishing academic career that climaxed when he chaired the economics department at the University of California-Berkeley, beginning a stellar career in American academia that led him to make friends with those who became powerful advisors to U.S. Presidents.
In 1964, Andreas Papandreou entered Greek politics “like a bolt out of the blue,” as a political rival put it at the time. Fifteen months later, Papandreou found himself fraudulently accused of heading a military conspiracy. A year after that, actual military conspirators imprisoned him along with 8000 of his compatriots in a coup that saw him as its main target.
In 1981, his sweeping electoral victory agitated American policymakers over his vow to close US military bases. In 1989, he was indicted in a highly politicized Parliamentary vote for alleged political corruption. Cleared of all wrongdoing in 1992, he trounced his opponents in elections the following year.
Today, 16 years after his death, Papandreou is once more a controversial figure and Draenos says, “The reasons are not hard to find. Greece’s sovereign debt crisis has sparked anguished debate over how and why, after nearly four decades of unprecedented peace, prosperity and democratic rule, Greece has ended up close to bankruptcy, with its economy in steep decline and its political system teetering on the edge. For much of this period, PASOK, the party he founded, has dominated the country’s politics.” Until the crisis has brought it close to vanishing, falling to only 5 percent in the polls and under siege by its own supporters.
THE FLAWED REFORMER
Draenos gives Papandreou his due when he notes his substantial record of achievement, as the man who restored full political and social rights to the those defeated in the civil war; who fostered the emergence of a new, larger and more cosmopolitan middle class; who established national healthcare, modernized an anachronistic educational system and built a rudimentary welfare state; who shrank an outsized US military presence in Greece; and who championed European Union equalization funds for the Mediterranean south—funds critical to modernizing Greece’s economic infrastructure.”
But Draenos pulls no punches in assessing Papandreou’s volatility and weaknesses too, blind spots which led him to take false steps and make bad decisions, the intransigence and baiting of the United States to gain popularity and credibility with his fellow Greeks, and the missteps that led him to put himself in a position to be hammered by critics, the failure of hubris that Greek leaders fail to remember, even though it concentrates on his making and not his years in power.
As Draenos noted, challenging both domestic and foreign elites, Papandreou became embroiled in a web of conflicts and intrigues that threatened his reformist ambitions, but also created a growing following for his novel, socially progressive nationalist politics that made him Prime Minister, led hundreds of thousands of supporters to cheer his ideas but led the United States to approve the right-wing military junta that seized power in 1967 and toss him in jail. But Papandreou came back when the junta was overthrown and created PASOK, outliving his critics and jailers.
Draenos put together the tale of one of Greece’s most important political leaders without talking to his son, George, or former wife, Margaret, saying he had an agreement with them not to discuss the contents until it was published. Even without them, Draenos’ training shows. A political scientist with a Ph.D. from York University in Toronto, his articles have appeared in many publications, honing the writing skills that make the Papandreou book so readable.
Papandreou seemed hard to define, but Draenos has done it.