Bearing Gifts

by Jonathan Chait | May 6, 1996

Several weeks ago, the Greek Embassy invited me to attend a luncheon at the National Press Club featuring a speech by the Greek prime minister, whose name escapes me at the moment. It wasn't Papandreou--if that's spelled correctly, thank TNR's assistant editors--whom I believe is dead or very ill, but rather his successor. I think his name ends with -itis. Apparently the embassy believes I'm the house expert on Greece. I was specifically chosen. My name was handwritten on a fancy invitation. Nobody else at the magazine received one. Clearly, the Greeks see me as an important opinion-shaper whose views they want to influence. Although flattered to be wooed by powerful interests, the moral implications troubled me. Would accepting a free meal from Greece-- no small gift for a perpetually hungry intern like myself--bias my coverage of the country? True, I've never covered Greece, or any foreign country, but I could conceivably do so in the future. Journalism reviews devote countless pages to the question of whether or not reporters like Cokie Roberts are unduly influenced by the hefty speaking fees they get from private organizations. (I, of course, have never accepted such an offer.) Yes, I admitted to myself, it is likely that if the occasion to opine about Greece arose, some part of me would hearken back to the delicious souvlaki or spanakopita the taxpayers of that country had generously provided me. I resolved to accept the meal but refrain from ever commenting on Greek-related matters.

The last time I accepted free food under false pretenses from Greeks was as a college freshman. I ended up accidentally joining a fraternity. Lured by the siren song of free hamburgers, I attended fraternity rush--a common practice of students fond of neither the Greek system nor the dormitory meal plan. When I arrived at the house, one of the Greek brothers turned out to be a friend to whom I couldn't bear revealing the truth. So I kept up the charade through three evenings of White Castle until a brother unexpectedly handed me a bid. Caught without a prepared excuse, I had no choice but to accept until I could devise a clear exit strategy. Intentionally trying to offend them with statements like "I don't like beer" and "I follow politics closely" failed. I attended awkward social events with my pledge classmates, who were just as eager to bond with their new brothers as I was to avoid any friendships that would entangle my hoped-for departure. I finally extricated myself after several meetings with painfully earnest house officers trying to address my trumped-up concerns by confessing that the whole ordeal was nothing more than a free hamburger scheme gone horribly awry.

If my life were a Greek tragedy, my fatal flaw would be a weakness for free food. Several weeks ago, a co-worker came along to a Greek take-out restaurant I frequent and didn't pay for his meal. (There were mitigating circumstances: the entrees and prices are scrawled seemingly at random on the menu, so it's difficult to tell how much anything costs. The line moves very fast, and the owner--who speaks imperfect English--does not entertain questions kindly.) On my way to the Greek Embassy luncheon I suddenly realized that the invitation could be a sting operation to catch the thief. It's the perfect bait: the owner doesn't know our names, but he knows that the thief works for TNR, covets free Greek food and is probably not above resorting to chicanery to get it. The play ends with the protagonist slain by the Greek restaurant owner, done in at last by his tragic flaw, but this time, ironically, for a crime of which he is innocent.

Fortunately, the restaurant owner was nowhere to be seen, nor was the embassy lunch sufficiently delicious to buy my loyalty. Moreover, most of the seating was reserved for big shots. Arriving late, I ended up at a half-empty table in the corner with some blandish middle-aged men who seemed to have only a marginally better idea than I did why they were there. Judging from the questions submitted to the prime minister, I was not the only fraud in the room; one person asked, "What can modern-day Greeks learn from the ancient Greeks about how to solve today's problems?" I remained, however, because standing in the doorway was an unbelievably beautiful young Greek Embassy staffer. Her intelligent Mediterranean face hypnotized me. At one point she noticed my incessant gaze and waved. I froze, suddenly a seventh grader sitting at the nerd table in the cafeteria, caught staring at a popular girl. A bizarre paranoia struck: she would discover that I was not a foreign affairs writer but an intern who didn't know or care about Greece, scamming a free meal at her country's expense. So I began paying attention to the prime minister's speech and, perhaps as a subconscious reaction to my guilt, slowly became filled with genuinely warm feelings for the Greek people. I found myself clapping, wishing we would send money to Greece--if we do already, then wishing we would send more--and humming the Greek national anthem on the way out. Well, actually, I was humming "The Greeks Don't Want No Freaks" by the Eagles, which might not really be the Greek national anthem. Maybe it should be.

Grecophilia, alas, has not spread to the rest of the journalism world. Recently The Wall Street Journal ran a long lead editorial attacking George Stephanopoulos for touring Greece at the expense of a Greek publisher, who also presented him with a silver religious icon. The editorial quoted Bush White House Counsel Boyden Gray--"The Bush White House never allowed any foreign or domestic entities to pay for trips or give gifts to White House aides. ... This Administration has thrown ethics out the window ... "--and concluded ominously, "What was the silver icon worth, and whatever happened to it?" The smoking icon that could bring down the Clinton presidency! The next week, a Stephanopoulos letter pointed out that Bush staffers took 179 such trips, including two by Gray himself, and that the icon, worth $150, was in the hands of the General Services Administration. The Journal, characteristically, stepped up the attack. Sure, it gingerly conceded in a second editorial, Gray's claim "overreached." Yet, forgetting the two accusations of illegality it had made, the Journal insisted that its point had always been that the trip was merely "featherbrained." The White House, the editors argued, is "incapable of making the basic distinctions on which any ethics law depends." It concluded with a call for Congress to "start taking depositions on Stephanopoulosflap." In retrospect, the Journal editors probably should have demanded congressional hearings before they admitted that no law was broken, rather than after. Just another example of the systematic anti-Greek bias I've begun noticing in the media. This is what happens when journalists lose their objectivity.

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at The New Republic.

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