Interview with Ambassador Soterhos

Posted by at 16 January, at 13 : 27 PM Print

Bush’s “Man in Greece” Recalls the President That He Called “Friend”


by Constantine Kolitsas

With the recent passing of President George H.W. Bush, contributing editor Constantine N. Kolitsas reached out to former U.S. Ambassador to Greece Michael Soterhos, an appointee and dear friend of the 41st president, to assess his legacy from a Greek-American perspective.  Speaking by phone from his home in Florida, the ambassador painted a picture of a compassionate leader whose dedication to his nation was exemplary, and whose commitment to building bridges was manifest in his approach to U.S.-Greek relations.

CNK:  Thank you for speaking with us today, Mr. Ambassador, and please accept the condolences from our publisher at the passing of President George H.W. Bush.  Can we begin by giving us your impression of the man as you knew him?

Ambassador Michael Soterhos:President Bush was a unique American; a unique president; a unique and open-hearted man who was a very successful president and very successful leader of the Republican party – he made the Republicans become human beings again.  He was a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful human being and I’m sorry I was not able to go to his funeral.

How is it that you got to know the president, and what was the extent of your relationship?

President Bush was a dear, dear friend of mine for almost all of my life and almost all of his life.  I had been active in the Republican party; from the local level to the national level, holding some important positions.  He and I met in Washington and we supported one another over the years as much as we could.  Our friendship was unshakeable. Among others, Ambassador Soterhos had served in a liaison position, leading the party’s “ethnic division”, as he called it; a role in which he worked with Americans of various ethnic backgrounds, communicating their issues to GOP leadership, and eliciting their support for the party’s candidates.  Candidates would call me for their blessing.  President Bush was one of my better friends in the party. As vice president in the Reagan administration, Bush acknowledged their work together, their bond of trust, and their friendship and petitioned President Reagan to give Mr. Soterhos his first ambassadorship. Bush told Reagan, “We owe this guy an embassy.”  I picked Jamaica because it was nearby and I wanted to be close to the United States.  He couldn’t send me to Greece yet because the Greek embassy was too complicated for an amateur like me (laughing).  Truthfully, I am shocked that he bent over backwards to befriend me – and that friendship lasted the rest of his life.  The cap of the relationship, of course, was extending himself to appoint me as U.S. Ambassador to Greece.  I enjoyed every minute of my job as ambassador; remaining there for nearly four years.

You were campaigning for a candidate that was running against a Greek American – Michael Dukakis.  What was that like?

Bush had a difficult problem.  He didn’t want to run against a Greek.  He loved the Greeks and he loved Greece, and he went on to show that as president… You served at a difficult time in Greek-U.S. relations – the Reagan administration had imposed a travel advisory against Greece a few years prior, and within Greece there was a strong anti-American sentiment.  What kind of challenges did you face, and how did President Bush support your mission?  The Greeks accepted me 100%; beautifully and politely…  They were very proud to have a Greek-American (and someone fluent in their language) to be selected as the U.S. Ambassador. Initially, however, it was difficult to convince President Bush and our government that Greece was an ally and a friendly country.  But when he sent me to Greece, it was with instructions: “I want you to fix the relationship; I want you to get along [with the Greek politicians and the Greek people] and support them – I want to help them in any way we can.” And so, I asked that he come to Greece and see for himself, and he came, spending five days – no president had ever considered going to Greece for any length of time, let alone almost a week.  Even the Greeks never expected an American president to visit Greece in that way – it’s not a big country or an important country, geo-strategically speaking.

What was that trip like? 

When he came to Greece, he said to me, “I’m here; I’m here for a week – you decide what I’m to do.” I played host. It was like two pals traveling together.  I had him touring Greece like a tourist; we would even stop and talk to little children.  We went all over Greece.  He enjoyed it there very much…  We went to Crete… I took him to my father’s island of Kythera, which he enjoyed.  And of course, we visited the U.S. bases there and met with some of the country’s most important people. Notably, the Ambassador arranged for President Bush to address the Greek Parliament. I had him speak to the elected officials; I had him speak to the body of the Parliament… I worked him to death in Greece, but it paid off.  And the Greeks did everything they could to support America’s positions in Europe and everywhere… Now Greece is a very dear friend of the U.S. and his visit was a big part of what created that closeness. And as for Reagan’s travel advisory; we were able to overcome the resentment and rebuild the relationship.  Visits by Americans to Greece increased spectacularly afterward, which also did a great deal to help overhaul the relationship between the two nations.

What was the president’s position on Greco-Turkish relations at the time?

Managing the tensions between Greece and Turkey was difficult, but we were successful in toning down the hostility that Greeks had toward Turkey.  I had him visit Turkey as well in order to enlighten the Turks that Greece was not an enemy, but a neighboring friend and he told that to the Turkish officials… I was very proud that I was able to get him to say that… From our work together, the U.S. supported Greece logistically, militarily, with its concerns regarding the Aegean Sea; we were extremely helpful to Greece and they appreciated it and they knew that I was behind it. George Bush was an open book.  He would genuinely do anything that would help the official he was dealing with, and he did everything he could to make Greece a friend of the United States – and he succeeded in doing so.

What was it for you in Greece at that volatile time in Greek politics?

I had an excellent relationship with all of the Greek politicians that I came into contact with, in both PASOK and New Democracy.  Through my years there, I probably spoke to their parliament a half dozen times.  In fact, I was even invited to speak at their [PASOK and ND’s] annual meetings.  I was beloved as an American diplomat.  I spoke to them frankly and openly, and they appreciated that.  And they appreciated the fact that President Bush found a Greek American to send to Greece as his ambassador. It was during Ambassador Soterhos’s tenure in Athens that the FYROM situation first flared. We had a tough time [with the FYROM issue] but we were able to convince the Greeks to take a friendly approach with their neighbors, and we succeeded in doing that, and they are now still friendly. It took a lot of doing to convince them that the situation in the Balkans was doable and acceptable.

What are your last thoughts on the man who you called “friend”?

President Bush had a big heart, and was able to cross rivers and continents in order to change people’s attitudes toward one another, and in that he succeeded.  The Bush example was a solo effort and a solo accomplishment: no one in office today can begin to match what Bush felt and what Bush worked for…

From the first convention of restaurant owners organized by Estiator in Atlantic City. From left, our publisher P. Makrias, the ambassador of Greece to the United States Loucas Tsilas, the ambassador of the United States to Greece Mike Soterhos, the representative of Cyprus to the United Nations Andreas Iakovidis and the president of the convention Tassos Manessis, the first president of Pan Gregorian of New York & L.I

Michael G. Sotirhos: A Curriculum Vitae


US Ambassador to Greece


US Ambassador to Jamaica


Peace Corps Chairman,

International Operations Committee 1973-1975


Chairman of Ethnic Voters,

Reagan/Bush 1984 Campaign

Republican National Committee

Chairman, Heritage Groups

Council Bush Cheney 2004


Council of American Ambassadors

Atlantic Bank of New York

Small Business Administration

National Advisory Council 1976

BUSINESS: Founder and past Chairman of the Board, Ariston Interior Designers, Inc

EDUCATION: BBA, Bernard Baruch College (1951)


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