ATHENS — Former Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, one of the most colorful, controversial political figures of post-World War II Europe, died early today, news media reported. He was 77 years old.
Athens radio stations interrupted their broadcasts to announce that Papandreou died of heart failure at 2:30 a.m. at his home in the northern Athens suburb of Ekali.
There was no immediate official announcement, but the radio stations reported that Prime Minister Costas Simitis, who was elected to lead Greece's Socialists in January because of Papandreou's ill health, was returning immediately from a European Union summit in Florence, Italy.
Papandreou returned to Greece from exile in 1974 to help restore democracy to its birthplace after the collapse of military rule only to preside over many of its more questionable moments during his years as prime minister.
He rejected overtures from others and founded his own political party--the Panhellenic Socialist Movement--and went on to dominate the politics of his country for the better part of two decades, serving as prime minister between 1981-89 and again from 1993 through the beginning of this year.
Still, he accomplished little of his declared agenda to transform Greece into a modern social democratic state and an influential third force in the global arena.
But his populist appeal, personal magnetism and his governments' liberal spending sustained his popularity among both the down-trodden and the intellectual left.
"One of the most courageous and committed politicians I have ever met," commented one of his former Cabinet ministers, actress Melina Mercouri.
Papandreou's world view was heavily influence by a powerful love-hate relationship with the United States, where he lived for nearly 20 years. He became an American citizen, served in the U.S. Navy and taught economics at four American universities, including UC Berkeley.
It was there that he reshaped his existing leftist ideals amid the anti-establishment radicalism that stemmed from college campuses in the 1960s.
"People try to search for his roots here, but there are none," said Thanos Veremis, director general of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy. "They can be found in a kind of Berkeley-style of radicalism."
His deep mistrust of American foreign policy became a guiding principle through much of his time in power. He denounced Washington as "a metropolis of imperialism."
Papandreou's vision of Greece as an important international player, his election slogans such as "Greece for the Greeks" and contempt for the United States led admirers to think of him as a kind of Hellenic Charles de Gaulle.
In fact, he was far less.
In foreign affairs, he practiced Greek policies more rife with gesture than substance. He flirted openly with Moscow at the height of the Cold War and reached out to international pariahs of the 1970s and 1980s, such as Libya's Moammar Kadafi, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Poland's martial law leader Wojciech Jaruzelski. He snubbed the United States by opening a Greek Embassy in Cuba.
But he never followed up threats to pull Greece out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the then-European Community or to close American military bases in Greece.
At home, his politics were not so much European socialist as a thinly disguised populism in the tradition of former Louisiana Sen. Huey P. Long. Papandreou built roads, schools and hospitals in poor areas when and where votes were needed but never undertook the comprehensive reforms so desperately needed to modernize the country's infrastructure.
His last years in power were clouded both by a steadfast refusal to stand aside despite failing health and by his controversial relationship with an Olympic Airways flight attendant, Dimitra Liani--a woman one critic described as half Papandreou's age and twice his size.
She eventually became Papandreou's third wife and Europe's most unlikely first lady. The image of the frail, aging Papandreou shuffling alongside his much-photographed wife gave a diminished, tragicomic dimension to a man who many had thought of as a political giant.
Accounts of their life in the sprawling pink villa they built together in a leafy Athens suburb, and the group of hangers-on--including three hairdressers and an astrologer--that held forth there merely added to the image of decadence and decline. "A flawed Ionian Caesar," concluded a commentary in the London Financial Times as early as 1989.
It was Papandreou's efforts in 1995 to launch Dimitra into politics that finally unplugged his personal popularity and brought comparisons with a less flattering historical figure, Argentine dictator Juan D. Peron. "He's one of the most fascinating characters [modern] Greek history has produced, but after all the sound and fury, he signifies nothing," said Veremis of the Hellenic Foundation.