It was “Greek Independence Day” at the White House on April 16th— NOT March 25th. But considering he is the most powerful and busiest man on the planet, I think most people were OK with the delay.
This was the 29th consecutive Greek Independence Day celebration in “the People’s House”. The event was first conceived and promoted by Andy Manatos, a well-known and well-respected advocate and lobbyist for Greek issues, whose family has politics (and Greece) in their DNA. Continuing in the family tradition— and business— his son Mike was at the helm again this year, running what has become “the event to get invited to” in the Greek American community.
Although I have been going to the White House event for many years now, it’s always an honor walking through the gate, knowing that the Greeks and the Irish are the ONLY two ethnic groups in the entire nation honored with an annual event at the White House.
Walking through five levels of security check points gives you the impression that you’re in a serious place. Once inside it strikes you just how awesome the experience really is. I was first greeted by the official portraits of the First Ladies— Nancy Reagan in red, Jackie Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson— all in their finest elegance. Naturally, my first stop was a photo with the Jackie Kennedy portrait.
Inside the President’s reading room I spotted books about Jackson Pollock and Bob Dylan— and lots about Greek history and art. I like this President’s taste already.
The official White House orchestra welcomed us with traditional American marches, patriotic Greek songs and of course, the obligatory “Zorba the Greek.”
The reception was scattered throughout several rooms of the White House where Presidents throughout American history have signed treaties, hosted official events and state dinners with kings and prime ministers from throughout the world.
The Blue Room with its expansive couches, the Green Room with great views of the lawn and of course— the famous Red Room, that was re-designed by First LadyJackie Kennedy. The star of the room was a simple, but elegant fireplace we all called “Tzaki O.”
While sipping champagne and sampling the Greek delicacies prepared by the White House chefs in the Official State Dining Room with the official portrait of Abraham Lincoln hanging overhead, I heard the first whispers… “He’s here…” … “Let’s go… He’s arrived.”
I thought they were talking about our host, Barack Obama, the President of the United States.
But that’s not who they were speaking of.
“Varoufakis is here…” “There he is, and he’s not wearing a tie!” They were talking about Yanis Varoufakis, the controversial and outspoken Greek Finance Minister.
The traditionalists started their “koutsoubolia” (gossip)— we’re Greeks after all, right? “Look at him, no respect— he’s not wearing a tie,” whispered a woman from New Jersey.
The young people flocked to him for selfies.
“Give the Europeans hell,” one man from Chicago told Varoufakis, while another patted him on the back and said “We are with you, mister minister!”
Of course, there were many other “celebrities” at the White House— John Stamos the Hollywood actor, members of Congress, wealthy businessmen and other “leaders” from all corners of the country. There were also numerous Ambassadors, diplomats and military officials from the Greek Embassy and various departments represented in America. But Varoufakis was the star.
Halfway through the festivities, we were interrupted by the announcement that the President was about to speak and we all entered the historic East Room.
It’s a rare sight to see— on a stage at the same time, the President and the Vice President of the United States of America. Two of the busiest people on the planet— here, honoring Greece, honoring the relationship between the two nations that has endured crises, disagreements and difficulty over the past 200 years and honoring the Greek American community, which after arriving in this country destitute and penniless, worked hard and became an important part of the American mainstream.
The President welcomed Archbishop Demetrios of America and spoke about Greeks in America and how they have been an integral part of the American fabric.
While the President was speaking, a few people behind me were arguing, rather loudly, about why the Greek American community is still being represented by the Church and wondered why the Archbishop was on stage with the President and Vice President. They didn’t even stop to listen to the President’s words.
It didn’t really bother me— I was just excited that this was happening, and that the White House welcomed the Greek American community today.
Zito I Ellas, the President said with a horrible accent— but he tried, and for that, I give him credit.