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Ethnic Group Flexes Political Muscle : Dukakis Mobilizes Greeks to Organize, Finance Drive

April 08, 1988|BOB DROGIN | Times Staff Writer

The Dukakis story is more widely known now, of course. As he has told countless crowds, his parents both arrived from Greece as teen-agers, with little knowledge of English and less money. Within eight years, Panos Dukakis was studying at Harvard Medical School and became Boston's first Greek-speaking doctor. Euterpe Dukakis, who still campaigns for her son at age 84, became a schoolteacher. Today, their son is running for President.

"He represents the best ideals for Greek-Americans," said Anthony H. Diamataris, publisher of the New York-based National Herald, the nation's largest Greek newspaper. "First generation. The best schools. Close to family. Religion. Honest. Works hard. He is the embodiment of everything we believe in."

Dukakis grew up speaking Greek at home, partly because his father's mother, who spoke no English, lived with the family for his first seven years. Although Dukakis' mother says his Greek has improved during the campaign, it still apparently bears traces of the family's rural roots.

'Redneck' Accent

"He speaks with a heavy northern accent," according to Alexander Papachelas, the Washington correspondent for Grammi S.A., Greece's largest newspaper group. "It's provincial. Redneck, really."

Even so, Dukakis is hot news back in Greece. Athenians celebrated with honking horns and raucous toasts around the Acropolis when early returns showed Dukakis winning Texas on Super Tuesday. Even less important contests draw inch-high headlines. "They woke me up in the middle of the night to find out what happened in South Dakota," Papachelas said, shaking his head.

Other Greeks shake their heads at Dukakis. In New York, a popular weekly called The Greek American, published in the heavily Greek Astoria section of Queens, takes Dukakis to task for not focusing more on the Turkish military occupation in Cyprus (he supports United Nations resolutions on the area) and other ancient Aegean feuds.

Greek-born editor Peter Pappas complains also that Dukakis never emphasized his immigrant past until he ran for President. "People swear the guy was always roasting lambs," he said. "It's all very recent. Frankly, I think it was a fund-raising ploy that got out of hand."

Greek Criticizes Dukakis

Pappas, one of the few Greek Americans to criticize Dukakis in public, says he is "like no Greek I've ever met. Every time I see him in public, he scares me. . . . He's so absolutely cold. I don't know what genes he carries."

Another prominent Greek-American, who asked not to be identified, said Dukakis has used his Greek background to soften his technocrat image. "He never appointed any Greeks to his cabinet. His kids were not baptized in the church. He got married in a Unitarian ceremony. His wife is Jewish. The connections, when you look deep, are not there."

Ethnic connections are nothing new, of course. No President since Andrew Jackson, elected in 1828, had immigrant parents. But John F. Kennedy had his "Irish Mafia." California's Armenians have rallied round Gov. George Deukmejian. New York's Gov. Mario M. Cuomo is a hero to Italian-Americans.

John Brademas, the nation's first Greek-American in Congress (there are now five in the House, plus Maryland's Paul S. Sarbanes in the Senate), recalls growing up proud to be Greek in WASPish South Bend, Ind.

"I remember telling other children, 'My father comes from the land of Aristotle, Socrates, Plato and Thucydides,' " said Brademas, now president of New York University. " 'Where is your father from?' "

'Making Up for Agnew'

A less-illustrious Greek-American may be a better reference point. "In a way, Dukakis is making up for Agnew," publisher Diamataris said. "We haven't forgotten."

In case others have, Spiro T. Agnew resigned as President Richard M. Nixon's vice president in October, 1973, hours before pleading no contest to income tax evasion. Greek-Americans are quick to point out now that Agnew's name was Anglicized, that his mother wasn't even Greek, and that he was an Episcopalian anyway.

But Agnew, a Republican, was popular with Greek-Americans while in office. One reason is they tend to be conservative and usually vote Republican, according to Charles Moskos, a Northwestern University sociologist who has studied the Greek-American community and says they are America's second-wealthiest ethnic group after Jews. Moskos says Greek-Americans are willing to overlook Dukakis' more liberal politics.

"Blood is thicker than ideology," he explains.

Cheers May Not Mean Votes

Not always. Although Dukakis was wildly cheered at the annual convention of AHEPA, the nation's largest Greek-American civic organization, in New Orleans last August, some Greek-Americans believe the applause may stop in the voting booth. "I can think of lots of Greek Americans who say: 'I'm glad he's running, but I'm voting for George Bush,' " said Elias Vlanton, AHEPA spokesman in Washington.

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