By Nick Larigakis
Once again, as has been the tradition by recent administrations, the President of the United States invited members of the Greek American community to join him on March 25th at the White House to commemorate and celebrate Greek Independence Day. In addition, a presidential proclamation was issued to commemorate the 188th anniversary of Greeceʼs independence and to reaffirm the strong bonds of friendship between Greece and the United States and to bring attention to the fact that this relationship is etched intrinsically by virtue of the principles that guided our founding fathers in establishing our own country.
The proclamation in part states:
“The relationship between Greece and the United States owes much to the vision of democracy and liberty forged in Greece. In constructing a modern democratic framework, our Nationʼs founders drew upon the immutable principles of the ancient Greeks. All who cherished the ideal of democratic governance are beneficiaries of the Greek legacy.”
Unfortunately, as this annual ritual starts to take shape every year, so to begins the annual jockeying for those coveted invitations allotted to the Greek American community. Who receives one and how the list is put together is still somewhat of a mystery. In previous years there have been hundreds of invitations issued and many were accommodated. This year however, for whatever the reason, the list was drastically reduced. I would estimate by as much as 75%. This obviously did not sit well with many, and rightfully so, who felt they should be included and for organizations who have been accustomed to receiving more than just a few invites, as for instance AHEPA.
One reason given was that many more members of Congress were invited this year than in the past. And while it was true that I did see more Members, there were no more than twenty and that still left plenty of space for more people to attend. Especially since this year there was no seating. Also, itʼs worth noting that I ran into someone there who had no connection to the Greek American community. He was an American working overseas for an American firm who happened to be in town and heard about the event and somehow received an invite.
In a letter to President Obama dated March 25, 2009, Ike Gulas, President of AHEPA, expressed his “disappointment” as to the process of how the invitees were “vetted.” As we all know by now Mr. Gulas declined to attend the White House celebration in order to protest what he deemed as a “lack of respect which was displayed towards” AHEPA. I congratulate Mr. Gulas and AHEPA for bringing to the fore what has been for a longtime now a contentious issue every year as to who should receive an invitation.
AHEPA has opened the door to all of us who have shied away from this issue and provided us with the opportunity to engage in a constructive dialogue so that this does not repeat itself in the future. And while I understand that you canʼt have dozens of entities controlling this process, nonetheless, a more conscientious effort needs to be made to reach out to a greater number of organizations in order to include a greater cross sectional representation of our community. This canʼt and shouldnʼt be controlled be a handful of persons or by any one organization. Further, this event should never be seen in the vein of partisan politics. Itʼs a celebration of the rich legacy of our community steeped in the values and traditions of our nation as drawn from ancient Greece.
Further, those who have been involved in the selection process would increase their stature by being more inclusive.
An invitation to the White House is truly a unique and special invitation, regardless of the circumstances, and I have been to many—including Rose Garden State visits, the reception hosted by then First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton for His All Holiness, a Stanley Cup champion celebration and a round-table meeting with President Bill Clinton—it doesnʼt get old. There is mystique about the place that transcends its walls and long history, as you realize you are arguably in the most identifiable symbol of freedom, power and influence.
Having said all this, however, there is an opportunity that gets lost every year and this in the end is the real tragedy. As it has been pointed out, there arenʼt many ethnic American groups that have a celebratory day at the White House. Maybe less than 5 and the Greek Americans are among them.
Therefore, given this unique opportunity and given the number of serious issues of concern that we have as they relate to U.S. interests with Greece and Cyprus, it is more imperative than ever that, in addition to the Archbishop, other leaders representing major organizations who espouse to these issues, be included in the discussion with the President prior to the beginning of the event. This will not only serve to further unite our community so that we can speak with one message through many voices, but will also serve to illustrate to the President the diverse and strong multi-faceted dimension of the Greek American community.
It is high time that U.S. policy makers engage our community when it comes to decisions on issues of importance to our community. We can no longer allow ourselves to be told by policy makers what they have already decided without consulting with us first. The Archbishop highlighted our concerns and issues during his comments standing along side the President and Vice President. Incredibly, the President in his comments did not refer or allude to any of these issues. Thatʼs unfortunate.
This isnʼt without precedent. I will never forget when under the guise of the Greek American community, 2 million dollars was raised for President George W. Bush during his campaign for a second term in the spring of 2004. I attended the event as a guest of a contributor, held in one of the largest ballrooms in Washington, DC at the Wardman Park Marriott Hotel. President George Bush standing on stage under the shadow of His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios and leading Greek American businessman Alex Spanos and with a room full of prominent Greek Americans, went on to deliver a twenty minute speech that could have been given to any American ethnic group. Unbelievably, the words Greece or Cyprus were never mentioned once!
Back to President Obama. After the White House ceremony, the problem got compounded by the announcement issued the next day that on his forthcoming visit to Turkey, he would not be visiting the Ecumenical Patriarchate. This would have been a wonderful opportunity for President Obama to send a strong message to the Turkish Government regarding our concern for this Holy See.
In his campaign statement of October 2008, he stated that he had “signed a letter to President Bush in 2006 urging him to press Turkey to restore the full rights of the Ecumenical Patriarchate…” And he called on “Turkey to respect the Ecumenical Patriarchateʼs rights and freedom…” He further stated that “Turkey should allow the reopening of the Patriarchateʼs school of theology on Halki Island and guarantee the right to train clergy of all nationalities, not just Turkish nationals.”
A visit to the Ecumenical Patriarchate would have been a good place to start.
Opportunities for the President to hear from leading segments of the Greek American community are few and far in between. They should never be lost. And although one can argue that a celebration is not a place for such a discussion, the problem is we donʼt have many opportunities to get our points across with the most important and powerful person of the free world—save this occasion.
The good news is that we have 351 days until next Independence days to rectify the situation.
**** Nick Larigakis, Executive Director American Hellenic Institute