Bernie Swain


George Stephanopoulos – Greek Heritage and Its Influence

by Bernie Swaine

George Stephanopoulos is a journalist and former political advisor. He can currently be seen on ABC news as the chief political correspondent, and Good Morning America.

My Greek Heritage and Its Influence

The Greek Orthodox Church is central to who I am. My father, Robert, was a priest, as were my grandfather, uncle, and godfather, and my mother, Nickolitsa (Nikki), worked for many years as the church’s national director of communications.

In many ways, my family’s story is the classic immigrants’ tale. We came to the United States and achieved a healthy balance by embracing America and all its opportunities, while also connecting with and building communities that maintained our culture. This was especially strong in my family because the church was such an active, unifying, and beloved presence in the community.

I identified from an early age as both American and Greek and really had one foot in both worlds. The ethos of being a fully engaged citizen – after all, the word “idiot” is derived from a Greek word for someone who doesn’t care about the broader world or the life of the community – permeated our house. My parents had a keen interest in politics and public affairs; newspapers, television, and the radio all kept us up to date.

We moved several times when I was growing up, as my father was assigned to different parishes. After spending several years outside in New York City, we moved to a suburb of Cleveland, where I went to high school. I enjoyed high school, earned good grades, and was on the wrestling team.

Like Mom, I never missed the nightly news or daily paper, and also like her, I believed that government was key when it came to fostering economic growth and taking care of society’s most vulnerable members. The idea of being part of that effort was very appealing.

The College Years
When it came time I applied to three colleges: Columbia, Princeton, and the University of Michigan. Princeton turned me down; Michigan and Columbia accepted me. Michigan was tempting – it was a good school, it was close by, and a lot of my friends were going there. It was also the safe, familiar choice. I decided on Columbia, lured by the excitement of New York City.

My parents drove me to New York for orientation week. They wasted no time taking me to the neighborhood’s two Greek diners, one of them being the famous Tom’s Diner from Seinfeld. They introduced themselves to the owners, explained that I was going to school in the neighborhood, and got them to promise they would float me a few meals if I ever ran out of money. I actually took the owners up on their “offer” a couple of times.

I majored in political science and also discovered an interest in media (no surprise to my mother) and was a sports broadcaster for the college radio station.

Becoming a Political Advisor
After graduation, I got a job as an aide to Cleveland Congressman Ed Feighan. Moving to Washington was another leap into a new world. I quickly found, true to family tradition, a community of other people who believed government could make a difference in people’s lives. But this wasn’t academic or theoretical politics; it was real, and it was thrilling.

I remained until 1988, eventually serving as his chief of staff. I left that position to work on Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis’ presidential campaign.

I supported Dukakis for many reasons, and his being Greek-American was pretty high on the list. All my life I’d heard my parents root for successful Greek-Americans, from Senator Paul Sarbanes to Ike Pappas at CBS to Major League pitcher Milt Pappas. Within the Greek community, there was tremendous, gene-deep pride in Dukakis’ run.

Working on a presidential campaign is a wild ride: There’s no down time, you work twenty-hour days, the stress level is high, and the stakes are higher. Dukakis, of course, lost badly to George H.W. Bush, but I loved the camaraderie, the promise, the challenges, and the excitement. I was eager to do battle again.

I wanted to help a Democrat win the White House. I also knew how grueling a presidential campaign could become, that you basically have to put your life on hold. In a couple of years, I thought, I might be married and have children, and at that point signing up for a campaign wouldn’t be a viable option. I felt a sense of now-or-never – I didn’t want to look up in twenty years and say, “Whoa, I missed an adventure.”

In the late 1980s, everyone in Washington knew about Bill Clinton’s presidential ambitions. He was young, charismatic, and smart. He made a case that a new, centrist Democratic message would enable the party’s candidate (that would be him) to win the White House. I believed he was right, and in 1991 I left Washington for Little Rock to join his campaign.

Working on Clinton’s campaign taught me so many things, and the power of teamwork ranks first. Internal bickering was not tolerated. We had our famous War Room, the enemy was our opponent, and we kept our eyes on the prize – end of story. I saw first-hand that a team working together could literally make history. Election night was pure exhilaration, masking a level of exhaustion I didn’t know existed.

After Clinton’s victory, I went to work in the White House as Senior Advisor on Policy and Strategy. I stayed for four years, through Clinton’s reelection in 1996. Those years were exciting, frustrating, fulfilling, and depressing.

After leaving the White House in 1996, I became a television journalist and political analyst. To maintain my journalistic integrity, I had to become nonpartisan. I think there was some wariness among Republicans early on, but I worked hard to demonstrate my neutrality. I still believe in the Greek (and American) ideal of an engaged, committed citizenry (no idiots), and believe that quality journalism is a lynchpin of a healthy democracy. Americans have a right to the truth.

Americans have a right to the truth.

The Greek Orthodox Church has remained a strong influence in my life, a guiding force. And my family has been a bedrock. In the intense atmospheres of politics and news journalism, my faith and family have reminded me that life is a gift, one that is meant to be filled with play and song and laughter as well as work. It has certainly been an amazing journey so far.