A UW Alum Pens an Untold Watergate Tale
James Barron's new biography helps Elias Demetracopoulos posthumously tell his mythic story
When James Barron was studying for a master’s degree at University of Wisconsin–Madison in the late 1960s, crossing paths with soon to be notables like Paul Soglin and Dick Cheney, his best moments were spent with Capital Times journalist John Patrick Hunter, who was ready with some advice.
Hunter shared his famous story of trying to get more than 100 Madison residents to sign a “petition” that was in fact the Declaration of Independence (only one person agreed to sign).
More than once, Barron recalls, Hunter counseled him not to let a nose for news consume him.
“He said it was important to cut yourself off from the news cycle,” Barron says. “Go out in the woods, hunt and fish. The news will be there when you get back, and you’ll be refreshed.”
Barron listened but did not hear.
“My wife reminds me of that when she sees me tethered to my iPhone at 2:00 in the morning.”
History buffs and readers looking for compelling narrative nonfiction will be glad Barron, many years later, remains obsessed with getting to the bottom of a story.
Barron spent more than a decade chasing an elusive white whale: the life of journalist Elias Demetracopoulos, a colorful and enigmatic Greek who connected Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign to dirty money but couldn’t get the story to the public.
The thing is, it was the 1968 campaign. If Demetracopoulos had succeeded, Nixon might never have been president, and the world might never have heard of Watergate.
Barron’s new book, “The Greek Connection,” tells that tale, and much more. It was called “a magnificent work” by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin that contains “much new history” according to legendary investigative reporter Seymour Hersh.
Hersh’s praise is of note, since he was the one who planted the seed of the story with the author.
Barron, a Massachusetts native who lives there now with his wife, the distinguished journalist Marjorie Arons-Barron, told me in a recent phone call that he was seated next to Hersh at a fundraising dinner in 2009 when the name Tom Pappas came up.
Barron said he was thinking of writing an in-depth piece or book on Pappas, who was believed to have been the bagman for an (illegal) 1968 gift of $549,000 from the Greek military dictatorship to the Nixon presidential campaign. (Nixon’s running mate, Spiro Agnew, had offered a surprising endorsement of the junta, saying at least they were anti-communist.)
Hersh shook his head. “Pappas? Worth a magazine article, maybe. You should talk to Elias Demetracopoulos. He’s still alive and in Washington.”
“I’d heard of Elias,” Barron says, “but I didn’t know he was still alive.”
The skeletal details of Elias’ life were the stuff of myth: from resisting the Nazis in occupied Athens at age 12 to patterning himself after the courageous and controversial CBS correspondent George Polk, murdered while covering the Greek Civil War in 1948. The story he almost broke but didn’t about Nixon in 1968 was part of the Elias legend.
Barron flew to Washington to meet with Elias, who was in an assisted living facility.
“He at first was resistant,” Barron says.
Elias had stonewalled other potential biographers and wanted to control his own story. Yet he felt he was too old to write his autobiography. He began cooperating after Barron went to Greece and came back with stories only a dogged and skilled journalist could uncover.
That Greece trip also convinced Barron that his book should be a biography, detailing Elias’ entire remarkable life, rather than narrowly focused on Pappas, Agnew, Nixon and the 1968 campaign.
Certainly, that episode is among the book’s highlights. Madison readers will be interested to learn that the late Madison presidential historian Stanley Kutler gave Barron an assist. “He’d guide my research and open doors for me,” Barron says.
Barron writes that Elias “could not believe that Agnew’s late-September endorsement of the Greek junta had been made for above-board reasons.” A friend told Elias that Tom Pappas, a Greek-American tycoon, had been in regular contact with John Mitchell and Maurice Stans from the Nixon campaign. The money Pappas eventually gave the campaign, Barron writes, likely came from a Greek intelligence agency.
Elias tried to get the New York Times interested, but time was short until the election, and he “decided the most efficient approach with the strongest payoff” was to get the story to the Hubert Humphrey campaign in hopes outgoing President Lyndon Johnson could get his CIA director to confirm it.
Elias met with Larry O’Brien, Democratic Party Chairman and Humphrey campaign manager, and told his story. To his dismay, it went nowhere. There was no “October surprise” in the 1968 campaign. O’Brien, it seems, did not trust Elias.
It was a major disappointment for Elias — “his lost chance for a place in history” — as the Washington Post noted in a review of the book.
If it’s possible to ease disappointment posthumously — Elias died in 2016 — Barron’s well-written, fact-driven biography should do it.
In life, anyway, biographer and subject grew close, after the initial distrust. Toward the end, with Elias ill and in hospice, Barron paid a last visit.
They hugged. Tears ran down Elias’s face as he said, “You’re the little brother I never had.”
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