Remembering Obama in Greece

Dukakis center medallion

In remembrance of President Obama, and in honor of our many Greek friends who were invited to attend his legacy speech in Athens, we publish Dukakis Center Director David Wisner’s 1988 post-election remarks, delivered at the US Consulate General of Thessaloniki (below the break).

Students, interns, and staff at ACT and the Dukakis Center had been especially active during the 2008 US general election, both in Greece and in the US.

Senior Kristin Harms caucused for Barack Obama in Iowa in January 2008, in what was the beginning of President Obama’s successful campaign to gain the nomination of the Democratic Party. (Kristin told us that a fellow Iowan who had spent the Fall 2007 semester as a study abroad student at ACT caucused actively for Hillary Clinton.) Meanwhile, junior Nemanja Grgic, who has spent the fall 2008 semester studying in the US at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, attended a late-October Obama rally in Pittsburgh and eventually got within a few feet of the candidate. A smaller number of people in the ACT community supported the McCain campaign but a sturdy number of study abroad students wore their McCain-Palin campaign buttons with pride.

On campus, American citizens working or studying at ACT were encouraged both to register and to vote by absentee ballot; more than half of the study abroad cohort took advantage of this service, which was coordinated by the Office of International Programs with additional support from the Dukakis Center. The ACT community was furthermore able to take part in an interactive dialogue on the election with former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis via digital teleconference.

ACT figured prominently in election and post-election media hoopla. Lambrini Nassis, David Wisner, and a handful of US study abroad students were interviewed by local journalists in the days prior to the election. Dr. Wisner was a featured speaker at a post-election breakfast held at the US Consulate General of Thessaloniki. ACT professors Joseph Gratale and Peter Chressanthakis also attended the event.

Finally, Dr. Wisner and a group of ten ACT students, including several study abroad students, attended a post-election assessment at the Consulate in the days following the election. The featured speaker was veteran Democratic strategist Rick Ridder of RBI Associates, who campaigned for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary and for Barack Obama on behalf of environmentalist groups in Colorado in the general election.


Prepared Remarks

US Consulate General of Thessaloniki
2008 Post-election Breakfast

By David Wisner

Good morning ladies and gentlemen, I would like to welcome you all here in turn. I think it is appropriate for me to thank Hoyt Yee, Bob King, Ioanna Koutsounanou, Costas Vassalos, and the entire team of people who work day in and day out at the US Consulate General of Thessaloniki to put on this event. And I think it is pretty well known throughout Greece that this is the place to be the morning after the election.  You guys put on a great party, so if you don't mind giving up a round of applause to Hoyt and the team here. 

I'd like to thank also a group of people who are rarely acknowledged in this type of public event, with whom I have worked in the past, actually as a wayward colleague, and that would be the press corps of the city of Thessaloniki, and in general the media and the journalists in Greece. I think what's interesting about this election, among many, many other things, is the unprecedented level of interest outside the United States in the campaign itself, in the candidates, in the platforms of the political parties, and now of course in the outcome of the election, and I'm confident when I turn on Greek TV that I actually can get very reliable and useful information, and so you guys owe it to yourself, you're not always acknowledged, but you do a great job.

I'm here representing the American College of Thessaloniki, and one of my tasks at ACT is to direct the Michael Dukakis Chair in Public Policy and Service, which now is entering its tenth season of public affairs activities. It's a non-partisan forum for debate on public issues, and one of the things we do every two years, when there is a general election, especially in the Presidential election years every four years, is to ensure that the American students who study at ACT register to vote and cast their ballot.

This semester we have over 100 American students studying at universities throughout the United States, and thanks to the work of my colleagues in the International Studies program well over 70% of those young people registered and voted. This is a number that we're seeing throughout the United States, and I'm pretty proud of that.

One of my students actually, a resident of the state of Iowa, got involved last year, volunteered to canvas for Barack Obama just prior to the primaries, caucused for Barack Obama during the Iowa primary, and stayed active even when she came back to Greece to resume her studies with the organization known as Democrats Abroad (you know both the American political parties, Republicans and Democrats, have units that operate in countries where you have American ex-patriots).

This is great. We have young people getting involved in unprecedented numbers in this particular election, and I hope its something that rubs off on young people here in Greece, and in the other countries whose students come and spend some time here in Greece with us or, as the case might be, at the public universities, represented in the person of Theo Karvounarakis.

I called the election about ten days ago. It seemed to me that the polls were indicating a fairly clear Obama victory. But the actual impact of that fact really started to sink in last night as I was looking at the Internet one last time. And I had four thoughts which I jotted down very quickly.

  • I'm humbled that we have elected an American who is of African origin; I'm moved.
  • I am saddened that such a great public servant as John McCain was defeated. He is a great man.  If you watched his concession speech, there has rarely been a more graceful concession of defeat in American public life. 
  • I'm proud to be an Americans right now, and I don't think that is such a bad thing.  I'm proud that so many people voted, perhaps for the first time. I'm proud that a group of Americans who had been in the margins of American public life have come to the fore, as was the case in 2004, when the so-called evangelical vote emerged and helped George Bush be reelected. This is very good for American public life, that the entire population is able to express itself, in the elections, during the campaigns, and I'm very proud to be a part of that.
  • I'm hopeful, too, that the bitterness and divisiveness of any campaign, but of this campaign in particular, can become very quickly a thing of the past, if a majority of American citizens, taking the lead of Senator McCain, accept the fact that they have a President, a person who perhaps they did not vote for, but who is their leader. It's constitutional, it's legal, we understand that, and hopefully we accept it.  If you're a Republican, you'll work with your party for the next round of elections; if you're a Democrat, you'll be happy, you'll celebrate, but you won't gloat, because the reality of American life is that we win sometimes, you win sometimes. And that's something we learn to live with. That's why democracy can flourish.

Well, it's been a very long, costly, and bitter campaign; you've watched some of it here.  It's also been a campaign marked by moments of humor, and I thought that perhaps at this moment we'd break some of the seriousness. Out of the thousands of video clips that I've seen on You Tube and other places, I've picked tow that show some of the lighter moments, the lighter side of the candidates, of the people that have been working with them. There is great joy in politics, and we just take a moment to look at these and then we’ll get on with our talk.

Three insights I've had over the course of the last six to eight months, and I'd say, well, they have been pretty accurate. 

I read an op-ed piece by the somewhat controversial conservative commentator of the New York Times David Brooks, commenting on the primaries, back in February, and he says, well, nobody really knows what's going on here. And I think that's one of the themes we've been seeing here, you've got all the guys on TV and writing in the papers and writing in the blogs, talking at podiums like myself, and very few people would have been able to predict a year ago, let alone perhaps a couple of months ago, that Barack Obama would be elected -- that he would be nominated. You may recall four years ago I predicted we would have a race between Hillary Clinton and Rudy Guiliani; well I am a New Yorker, so that makes a little bit of sense. But this is it, this has been the election to turn punditry on its head. And I think part of the reason for that is the availability over the Internet of so much information, such that you yourself could have an expertise in American politics just by spending a few hours a day looking at sites on the Internet. 

My second thought came as I was addressing an email from one of my former American students, a young man, I think of Middle Eastern origin who studied at a very prominent American university and now has a job working at a brokerage firm -- I presume he still has his job now, I don't know! And he asked me, well, these are the things that are going on and it seems to me that this is the candidate who expresses the best solution for that particular issue, and I said, "Guys, this is about race. Are we ready to elect an individual of African descent to be President of the United States?"  And you know when a French media team goes into a truck stop in Iowa which is typically full of people, of Democrats who have voted Democrat all their life, and he asks whom are you voting for and they say we're voting for McCain; the journalist asks why, and the individual looks into the camera and says, "I don't like niggers." 

Race is a fact in American life. It's not only African-Americans, it's a fact. It's something we live with, something we try to deal with.  You've seen a lot in the news about the negative campaign tactics of the Republicans, and this maybe media bias, it may be true, the fact is there, on both sides, that people have difficulty accepting the fact that a person of color can become President of the United States. Well, I hope we've overcome that.

My third thought very briefly, when it was announced that Sarah Palin would be the Vice-Presidential pick of John McCain, I thought, that's it for the GOP. The so-called part of the Big Tent is ripping at the seams. Which direction is the Republican party going to go in. I mean, we know the Democrats have a similar problem: the Rainbow Coalition, it's sometimes called. It's a fact of American political life that the parties are decentralized; there's an enormous degree of diversity in the composition of the parties. But at this particular juncture it wasn't clear in my mind and in the mind of a lot of people watching, which direction the Republican party wanted to go in. And this has been followed up. I had this insight, what a couple of months ago, and you see now more and more moderate Republicans are questioning the wisdom of that particular move. I don't want to say whether it was good or bad, I don't want to reveal whom my choice of presidential candidate would have been, but it does appear to me that that was one of the problems that the Republicans had. Are they going to be the party of George Bush, are they going to be the party of John McCain, or are they going to try to be a little of both, because they are not the same persona. 

Now what are we going to look for in the next four years. You have a Democrat majority, or a Democratic majority – do I sound a little like George Bush there? that was a slip – in the Congress; some of the Democrats in Congress will want to go faster than Barack Obama will want to go. He does have to represent all Americans. How is he going to handle hostility in the opposition and hostility from the more radical elements of his own party. This is a big question. He himself has already hinted that he's not going to be changing a lot of things in 100 days; it may take 1000 days, it may take four years, and I think that's a responsible thing to say. He's got a lot of challenges. I would say looking at the way he managed his campaign, if there's a person in American politics who is up to that challenge it may well be Barack Obama. And I think we should all hope he is successful.

Folks, this time four years ago I was looking at the next round of elections. The political parties are doing that. They're starting with what's happening in the states – the next round of elections, the local governance, the state legislatures, the governorships.  2010 is an important year because we conduct a census. And if a particular party controls the legislature in a state that has incoming population they can change the shape of the districts such that that party stands a better chance to elect members of Congress in Washington. It's something, this is a fact of American life, it's always changing. Republicans did it very well in 2000; we'll see what happens. The indications are that while the focus in the federal government in Washington has been on a Democratic sweep – what we call a triple – it's not certain whether the Republicans will do so badly in state and local elections, and that means the next time around the Republicans could very well be competitive. Bear in mind,
this is part of the great dynamic of American politics.

Two things further that we need to watch out for, they will probably be a little less under the radar screen, particularly the first. Barack Obama is the first candidate in American history to forego public financing for his campaign. He raised an enormous amount of money, uniquely from private sources. I would think one of the first things that John McCain is going to do when he goes back to the Senate is to introduce legislation that will regulate this. He has that reputation. The one guy had a clear deficit, John McCain, because he accepted public financing, which means $84 million and that's all you get. We're expecting the total for the Presidential race alone to exceed $1 billion, for advertising, campaigning, and everything else. That's a lot of money; maybe we need to look at that.

Observers on both sides of the political spectrum of the United States are also predicting that this election will mark the death of mainstream media. You see it already, stations like MSNBC and Fox News are clearly partisan in the way they look at the election, particularly the commentary, and, you know we used to pride ourselves in the United States that journalism was done a little differently, you could have a mainstream national media that was non-partisan. And it appears now that we are looking a little bit like France, or Britain, or Greece, or European countries where the newspapers pretty much take sides. And I think this is something we need to look at. Now, there is an alternative form of journalism for which I have some hope, and that is what you see in the blogs, the web logs, in the Internet. And you often are going to see, in fact a Pew Institute study just done last week indicates, that more and more people are turning to the Internet for information about the campaigns, and I think this is a trend that will persist. But we need to worry about the New York Times, and the Washington Post, and the Washington Times, and some of these newspapers that seem to be taking sides a little bit more explicitly in their coverage of events. That's something which as an American I fear.

I'd like to thank you for hearing me out this afternoon... Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.


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