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a visit by Nixon

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A VISIT BY NIXON

 

Our first VIP visitor after the coup was Richard Nixon. I was assigned as his escort or control officer, most probably because no one else cared for the job. Although he was then already gearing himself up for the 1968 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination (by traveling around the world and getting his name in the papers), he had been all but counted out of politics for the past five years and no one gave him much of a chance to make a comeback. His visit to Athens had originally been scheduled for a date that fell immediately after the coup, and on learning of the coup Nixon had telegraphed the ambassador offering to postpone his arrival if Talbot thought it best, or to come ahead if Talbot thought he could contribute something helpful in the new situation. Talbot suggested postponement and when Nixon arrived in Athens in mid-June (accompanied by Pat Buchanan, his press agent and later his speech writer) Talbot had departed for Washington on consultation to be followed by home leave. Nixon and Buchanan stayed at the Residence in the ambassador's absence.

      For about two and a half days I stayed at Nixon's elbow, trying to make things run smoothly. I was not at his elbow the whole time, obviously; among other things he had lunch at Tatoi alone with Constantine and Anne-Marie. Nixon was a remarkably easy visitor to handle, except for one facet: Buchanan apparently had no authority to make the least decision by himself, but had to check out everything with the boss, even permission to pay for a cable of greetings to a convention of Young Republicans meeting in some place like Topeka, the cable costing all of $3, if I recall correctly. Nixon impressed me as a person who made all the decisions affecting his life by himself, the big ones as well as the minutiae. I wondered if, were he ever elected president, he would be capable of delegating any authority.

      Anschuetz was the Chargé in Talbot's absence and he decided to host a reception for Nixon where he could meet some of the key figures in the new regime as well as some prominent political figures from the pre-coup days, all gathered together in his garden. The guests naturally split into two hostile groups, having nothing to do with each other, not even exchanging greetings. There was some anger at Anschuetz for having placed them all in an uncomfortable situation, but only a man of Anschuetz's personality could have pulled it off. It was the first, last and only occasion under American auspices at which members of the regime and a significant number of the leading ex-politicians appeared together; ever afterward opponents of the regime would telephone the embassy’s protocol office when receiving an official American invitation to make sure that no members of the “junta” would be present before they would agree to attend.

      Anschuetz hosted a small stag dinner –– about ten guests –– for Nixon after the reception. Talk at the table was entirely dominated by Anschuetz's friend Spyros Markezinis, the Progressive Party leader, who held the floor with a two-hour non-stop monologue that exhausted everyone, Nixon included. The following day I escorted Nixon to the Acropolis, where he joined Art Linkletter, who was filming some material for his TV show, Houseparty. They were longtime friends, and Nixon earned the benefit of exposure to Linkletter's millions of viewers.

      Nixon also called on several of the regime's leaders. The most memorable meeting was with Brigadier Stylianos Pattakos, the Interior Minister and tank corps commander who had played such a key role in the coup. Pattakos had built himself a reputation as a somewhat genial, somewhat sinister clown who constantly put his foot in his mouth but who also had the endearing quality of candor. He was the Spiro Agnew of Greece. For this occasion he used an interpreter, which kept down the number of his gaffes. Nixon had doubtless met a great many peculiar political personalities in his travels about the world, but the alternately bluff and ingratiating Pattakos evidently startled the sophisticated ex-vice president.

      As an example of the dialogue that often caused Nixon to give me an unbelieving sidelong glance (he wondered afterward if the interpreting had been accurate and I assured him it had been) I will cite an exchange on the subject of press freedom. Noting that some two monhs had passed since the coup and while it was apparent that complete tranquility and public order reigned in the streets, Nixon wondered if the new regime could not lift some of the restrictions on the press, which at that time was strictly controlled to the extent that editors had to check out their page make-up, placement of photographs, size of headlines, and so forth with the government censor.

      “Censorship was not my choice,” said Pattakos to his visitor. “It was the freely taken decision of the press people themselves.”

      “How was that?” Nixon asked. “That is not what I have been led to believe.”

      “You have doubtless been lied to, Mr. Nixon. I will tell you exactly how it came about. Just last week I called together all the journalists, editors, reporters, publishers, everyone, in my capacity as Minister of the Interior, and I said, Gentlemen, the entire matter is up to you. You alone shall decide whether we shall have censorship or not. Now I offer you the choice. Either we have no censorship at all and anyone who steps out of line goes straight to the detention camp on the island of Yiaros, or we have censorship and the censor decides what gets published and everyone stays out of trouble. Mr. Nixon, they voted for censorship, I assure you.”

      I could not keep from chuckling at this, for Pattakos himself was chuckling, but Nixon, when he heard the translation, did not see the joke. I had to explain to him that the junta had incarcerated thousands of alleged leftists, Communists and others, on the already notorious Aegean prison island of Yiaros. In the car after the interview Nixon commented to me, “That man doesn't pull any punches, does he?”

            Prior to his departure from Athens Nixon held a press conference at the airport. I warned him that there would be representatives of the junta there posing as journalists who would try to get him to say something favorable about the regime that they could exploit in the local press to show American support for the government. Highly experienced at this sort of thing, Nixon handled himself expertly and stressed several times the need for an early return to constitutional norms and civil liberties, as well as democratic elections. But at one point he let fall the remark that it appeared to him that “something had to be done” in April 1967, meaning that the political situation in Greece had been so troubled that some extraordinary action was inevitable, and of course this resulted in streamer headlines the next day in the pro-government press together with high praise for Nixon's declaration “in support of the April 21 revolution
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