Watergate, ethics, a mirror to now

In "The Greek Connection," James H. Barron tells the tale of a little-known fighter for justice and the tricky thicket of political progress

The phrase “Watergate scandal” typically brings forth a host of associations:  Burglary – cover-up – lying  – Congressional investigation and hearings – Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward – Presidential Counsel John Dean – White House tape recordings – constitutional crisis – President Nixon – resignation.

How about adding Elias Demetracopoulos ?

Who is that, and what links him to the Watergate scandal ? 

James H. Barron’s meticulously researched new book The Greek Connection: The Life of Elias Demetracopoulos and the Untold Story of Watergate (the endnotes and bibliography run to 65 pages) presents in vivid detail the saga of Elias Demetracopoulos (born December 1, 1928, died February 16, 2016), Greek journalist and a fixture on the American and international political stages for decades, although often in the shadows rather than the limelight.  His presence spanned the administrations of eight Presidents – Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan – and moves among multiple roles beyond writing newspaper copy: operative, influencer, information broker, muckraker, partisan, and most importantly, unflinching advocate for democracy, especially in Greece. 


IN REVIEW
The Greek Connection: The Life of Elias Demetracopoulos and the Untold Story of Watergate
By James H. Barron
Melville House Publishing, 2020


The April 21, 1967 Greek military coup, when tanks rolled into Athens before daylight, drove Elias to America as the 1968 U.S. presidential election year approached.  Based on his extensive contacts in Greece and the U.S., and from investigative inquiries formal and informal, Elias uncovered an attempt to support Richard Nixon’s presidential bid through a circuitous money laundering scheme.

In early 1968, facilitated by the intervention of Greek-American Tom Pappas, a devoted Nixon supporter and financier, approximately $550,000 (about $4 million in today’s dollars) was funneled from the Greek KYP (their version of the CIA) to the Nixon/Agnew election campaign – money that originated, Barron writes, from a secret portion of the American CIA’s budget.  Elias approached Democratic strategist Larry O’Brien with this information, which, if made public, could have seriously damaged Nixon’s presidential ambitions.  Ultimately O’Brien told Demetracopoulos, without clear explanation, that there would be no action on the Greek/Nixon money transfer matter by the Democrats.  Nixon then went on to beat Hubert Humphrey, barely.

Barron offers a tantalizing hypothesis, in two parts:  First, revealing the Nixon money-laundering scheme might well have turned the electoral tide for Humphrey, thus dramatically changing the course of American history.  Second, one of the motivations for the June 17, 1972 Watergate complex burglary into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee was to retrieve and bury any documents provided by Demetracopoulos to O’Brien (the DNC chairman) and others about that scheme so they could not be used to derail Nixon’s 1972 re-election effort.

That startling aspect of The Greek Connection is but a part of the sweeping biography of Elias Demetracopoulos that Barron presents in his riveting, entertaining, and revealing book.

Left: Dust jacket. Right: Photo of Demetracopoulos in 1950 (Elias P. Demetracopoulos Collection / James H. Barron).

Whither Journalism and Journalists

The story of this largely unknown but widely connected man could not be more relevant to our present circumstances.  Many of us are confined largely to our homes, with limited direct personal interactions outside of family, due to COVID-19.  We have, hopefully, completed an election with portentous consequences for the future of American democracy.  Journalism in all its manifestations – print, television, social media – has, under these abnormal conditions, become critically important in binding us together and presenting perspectives on a volatile crisis with political, cultural, economic, health, and psychological dimensions.  For four years we have been treated daily to the spectacle of one television “news” station being the voice for the lies of Donald Trump, other members of his administration, and Republican office holders, while commentators for competing outlets regularly call these same people – Trump, especially – disingenuous, pathological liars and hypocrites.

The Greek Connection, in its portrait of Elias Demetracopoulos, implicitly asks a fundamental question: What is the role and responsibility of journalism, of journalists, in the face of government intimidation, repression, oppression? 

To be more specific, what lessons does Demetracopoulos’ story have for journalists today?  Is Elias a model for journalists to follow?  When is it acceptable, or necessary, for journalists to become partisan political actors, or does crossing that line mean that a journalist ceases to be a journalist?

Barron’s way of answering these issues is to give the reader a view of Elias’s career and life on a microscopic level as they evolved within the macroscopic world of Greek and American politics. 

Many Identities and Roles

Perhaps the most formative part of Demetracopoulos’ life occurred when he was a boy and the Nazis occupied Greece during World War II.  An only child, he demonstrated independence and commitment by joining resistance forces battling the Germans.  Before reaching the age of 18 he had been imprisoned and tortured, and also exposed to the barbaric treatment administered to his comrades by the Nazis.  The description of this period from Elias’ life in the early chapters of The Greek Connection are graphic and not for the faint of heart.

After the Germans withdrew from Greece, Demetracopoulos witnessed a sorry spectacle right out of George Orwell’s fable Animal Farm.  The various factions of the Greek political spectrum – monarchists, republicans, parliamentarians, supporters of democracy, Communists, the military, workers’ organizations, et al – who were united against the German occupation quickly and literally began to fight each other for control of Greece’s future. The young but now hardened Demetracopoulos viewed this disheartening disintegration and committed himself to being a passionate defender of democracy generally, and particularly in Greece.  Journalism was a logical mechanism for informing and influencing others in pursuit of this commitment.  A means to an end, it seems fair to say, but not the only one Elias used over the decades to lobby for the restoration, maintenance, and sustenance of basic democratic principles and practices in Greece.  As Barron puts it:

“Quite apart from being a journalist, Elias Demetracopoulos was a zealous democrat who supported political freedoms and human rights.  He favored an ‘open society’ capable of evolving and adapting to changing circumstances.  He believed in robust public debate, compromise, and incremental reform. …For Elias the essential elements of a functioning democracy were simple:  majority rule, with free and fair elections; respect for minority rights; an independent judiciary; and a free press able to investigate and criticize its government.”

This is hardly a radical agenda, but Elias’s lifelong dedication to it led him to blur the lines between being a journalist, an advocate, and an activist.  Demetracopoulos’ idea of what journalism and journalists should do was, shall we say, expansive. When he told Larry O’Brien in 1968 about the secret transfer of money to the Nixon/Agnew campaign, Elias was not writing a story.  He was seeking to expose the connections between Nixon fundraiser Tom Pappas, the Greek intelligence service (KYP), and the ruling military junta in Greece that Elias despised.  Such connections, if publicized, could have altered the outcome of an American presidential election, embarrassed the junta, and damaged the reputations of Pappas and Agnew, both Greek Americans who did not oppose the dictatorial regime that caused Demetracopoulos to live in an American exile for several years.   

Demetracopoulos cultivated many sources of information, advice, and gossip and had diverse political, social, and cultural contacts.  At the same time, he carefully and skillfully avoided being narrowly associated with specific policy positions or points of view. “Still only in his mid-twenties, Demetracopoulos had established himself as a serious player,” Barron says, in part because of his “assertive personality.” He demonstrated professional astuteness and unorthodoxy by having working relationships with more than one journalistic outlet.  For example, in the early 1960s he wrote for three Greek newspapers with different political persuasions and audiences – Makedonia, Athens Daily Post, and Ethnos. 

Demetracopoulos was, by Barron’s account, in a league of his own when it came to networking.  Describing those invited to a 1976 party Elias organized in Washington D.C., he writes:

“The guests included forty-two senators, with names like Fulbright, Kennedy, and Javits, thirty-four congressmen, cabinet officials, leading Washington socialites, financiers, reporters, columnists, editors, broadcast journalists, bureaucrats, and twenty-two ambassadors…”

A Long and Winding Tale

Barron’s own background as a lawyer and journalist served him well in researching and describing the life of Demetracopoulos.  These are professions that require discipline, patience, and perseverance in building either a case or a story.  The Greek Connection is a monumental, painstaking effort at historical reconstruction and narration that took ten years to complete.  Starting with a vast array of disparate, discrete source materials – personal interviews, phone conversations, written records, to name a few – Barron integrates and connects them to form a coherent but multi-layered portrait of Elias the person, journalist, political operative, and man about town, and of the international circuit in which he was immersed. The book has the pacing, richness, and intrigue of an irresistible adventure novel as Barron carefully and skillfully unfolds the saga of his main character, from a child playing near a dusty corner in Athens to the drama of operating on the world political stage as a somewhat charismatic but enigmatic adult.  What unifies the book through a detailed whirlwind of events and activities spanning several decades is the central presence and mission of Elias Demetracopoulos himself, relentlessly moving forward, not giving up, in his quest to advance democracy in Greece.

As portrayed by Barron, this main theme of The Greek Connection is amplified by two related subplots: One, how Elias used a variety of identities, roles, tactics, and strategies to push the cause of Greek democracy, moving back and forth among them; two, how he simultaneously had to defend his credibility and reputation, which were under attack by the Greek military and adherents of authoritarianism, along with American intelligence agencies, because of his determined dedication to that cause.

Barron’s narrative moves easily between a macro and micro perspective to show the historical context surrounding Demetracopoulos. The author emphasizes that Demetracopoulos tried to get successive U.S administrations to make Greek democracy a priority during the long decades of the Cold War when “anti-communism” was the prevailing American ideology and pro-democracy advocates were often viewed as agitators who threatened our security.  When Elias came to the U.S. to escape the Greek military dictatorship in 1967 and seek assistance for democracy in Greece, the Johnson and then Nixon administrations were utterly focused on waging the Vietnam War and controlling civil unrest stimulated by that conflict. Trying to get Greece on the agenda of American officials during this period was an uphill battle despite Elias’s prolific networking skills. As well, the country’s geographic isolation, separate from European nations, and its historic tensions with another more critically positioned North Atlantic Treaty Organization member, Turkey, led American decision-makers to regard Greece as a relatively minor actor on the international political stage.           

These macro factors constrained Demetracopoulos’ effectiveness in making the future of Greek democracy a core concern for presidential administration advisers, department and agency managers, and members of Congress. While Elias pursued a stream of journalistic/advocacy activities on behalf of Greek democracy, he was usually battling strong currents thwarting his efforts:

“He ran off hundreds of reprints with congressional letterhead to use in his lobbying packets. From retail politicking to background briefings, he proselytized constantly.  He prepared articles under his own name and ghost-wrote others, appeared on talk shows, held press conferences, engaged in formal debates, and gave speeches to groups large and small.  He was always competing for attention against bigger stories:  Nixon’s Cambodia bombing and the resulting anti-war Moratorium, the Apollo 11 moon landing…Woodstock in 1969.  A dictatorship in Greece was no longer fresh or pressing news.”

Personality and Character

While clearly sympathetic to his protagonist, Barron does not refrain from describing Demetracopoulos’ personality, character, and lifestyle, since they were integral parts of his approach to politics and journalism.  He could often be, Barron notes, “self-centered, demanding, agenda-driven, and taciturn.” He knew how to schmooze and engage, diplomatically, in gamesmanship, ingratiating himself with people across the ideological spectrum.  He was married once, briefly, and had no children.  Otherwise Elias was a confirmed bachelor who lived alone.  He had, however, many contacts, interactions, friendships, arrangements, and alliances that made up a web of relationships and resources applied to the fight for Greek democracy.

Demetracopoulos presented a peculiar combination of relentless socializing while at the same time living as an ascetic.  He was, in his late twenties, “debonair … impeccably dressed in conservative British attire, wearing a splash of cologne, his now-thinning well-trimmed black hair parted and combed back.” Elias exuded “a personal brand of sophisticated politesse, charming others by paying attention to their opinions. He was simultaneously a proud egotist and an inveterate name-dropper, giving the impression that he had contacts everywhere in the world … from cocktail parties to diplomatic receptions to national days and commemorative events, to airport arrivals and departures involving notables, there was Elias Demetracopoulos, often the center of attention.”

And yet this also was Elias:  always a renter, with furnishings that were spartan; did not own a car; did not indulge in luxury vacations or resorts; never a smoker, drinker, gambler, or user of illegal drugs; never learned how to use a computer.  He did not engage in conspicuous consumption or materialistic accumulation of possessions. Rather, in the words of Barron, Demetracopoulos “wanted only to be a successful player in the worlds of politics and business.” Referring to the multitude of newspapers, magazines, newsletters, reports, analyses, and other documents that surrounded Elias in his cramped living quarters, Barron says, “These were all scattered and stacked high on the floor or on his couch, table, and chairs, organized according to a system only he could decipher … it appeared that someone had already ransacked the place. He would live like that for decades.”

Recognition and Final Closure

In 1974, over the course of several weeks, the economic failures, political repression, and sheer brutality of the ruling military junta led to a counter-coup by moderate elements of the Greek armed forces and an eventual transition to a civilian government.  The latter was, at least in comparison to the previous regime, more inclusive, representative, and humane.

On April 13, 1975, Elias returned to Athens and was treated as a patriotic hero.  However, unfinished business awaited him back in the United States.

Elias campaigned tirelessly over the years through successive presidential administrations for the restoration and support of Greek democracy.  He believed, perhaps somewhat blindly, that the U.S. and Greece shared a common political heritage and therefore the U.S. would be a consistent partner for his cause.  But this passionate gadfly and muckraker was carrying on an individual crusade in the very large context of the American political arena.  It was an arena where anti-communism was the primary orthodoxy and corporate influence was powerful. To the dismay of Demetracopoulos, the combination of both often led Republicans and Democrats to value stability over the kinds of freedoms the U.S. allegedly was founded upon, and in some cases to favor outright dictatorships if they preserved American economic interests and geopolitical dominance.

With his unyielding insistence on basic principles and practices of democracy, his ceaseless lobbying and publicity activities, and his personal idiosyncrasies, Elias was perceived by some in different U.S. administrations as a troublesome zealot.  For certain officials in the CIA, FBI, State Department, and other government entities, Elias was someone to be watched and monitored, to be investigated, and to have his character periodically castigated and smeared, personally and professionally.  Despite having many favorable political/cultural/social connections in the U.S., Europe, and Greece, Elias was also variously accused of being a Communist or Communist sympathizer, an anti-American extremist, a foreign agent, a selfish egotist, a neurotic loner, a celebrity seeker, or some combination thereof.

Demetracopoulos spent many years battling these character assassinations.  Gradually, over time, he was able to effectively discredit most of them, and through formal and informal communications be cleared of any malevolent intentions and acknowledged for his pro-democracy credo. The final vindication of his reputation came on the evening of January 7, 2008 at the Greek Embassy in Washington, D.C. There, as a result of Greek President Karolos Papoulias’s decision, Elias was decorated as a Commander of the Order of the Phoenix for “outstanding services rendered to Greece in his capacity as journalist” and his “history of opposing Greece’s military dictatorship.” Included among the distinguished attendees was William Webster, former Director of the CIA and FBI, who shook Elias’s hand warmly.

Demetracopoulos’ final years were difficult and constricted due to Parkinson’s disease. He died in Athens on February 16, 2016 at the age of 87. Fittingly, his ashes were placed near the Acropolis. After all his international travels, Elias’ life had started and ended on Greek soil.

Through an email exchange with Barron I asked what, after spending 10 years examining his subject’s life in encyclopedic detail, he hoped readers would determine was the main theme or conclusion of the book.  This was his response:

 The central takeaway from Elias’ life is that one intrepid individual, against great odds, can make a difference, but standing up to abusive governments often entails great personal sacrifices, profound risks and a lifetime of relentless attacks and harsh consequences.  To be a whistleblower requires the courage to jeopardize career and even risk one’s life.

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