Few Greeks would deny that Andreas Papandreou (1919-96), the son of a prominent liberal political leader who would himself go on to lead the country, is a most compelling, even fateful, figure in Greece's recent democratic history. Pasok, the party he established in 1974, has ruled the country single-handedly for a total of 21 years; many of the ideological themes he introduced became wholeheartedly accepted by society and some are still resonant; the largesse of his administrations marked the beginning of Greece's financial derailment and, to a large extent, today's grave crisis.
None of that, however, is in this book. Instead, Stan Draenos offers a riveting account of Papandreou's early formation, from his years in US academia to his return to Greece in 1959 to be involved in his father's, and later his own, political struggles. This is a story of high drama and intriguing actors, including army conspirators, scheming foreign diplomats, newspaper owners with high stakes in the political game, a playboy king, Communist agitators and ultra-Rightist thugs, the Archbishop of Cyprus, and a US wife with strong political instincts. And Draenos tells the story well, nicely interweaving three parallel subthemes.
The first is the extraordinary transformation of Papandreou from a member of the American liberal academic milieu, who for nearly two decades "didn't want to talk or hear about Greece", into a populist leader who, after rediscovering his "Greekness" during a short sojourn in Athens, became a major protagonist in the nation's politics.
The second subtheme in the book concerns the trials and tribulations of Greece's imperfect democracy and how it was brought to an end with the coup d'état of 1967, partly because of fear that Papandreou would exploit the enormous public discontent against the political system that had arisen in the 1960s.
And, third, there is the psychologically complex relationship between Papandreou and his father, George. It begins with the father's incessant attempts during the son's exile in the US to lure him back to Greece, in the hope, as George once confessed, of being able to bequeath his political party to his son; it continues with Papandreou's return to Greece as the closest adviser and confidante of his father, who became prime minister in 1963; and it ends with the deterioration of the relationship to near-breaking point when Papandreou chose to follow a radical political course that was at odds with his father's political moderation.
It was amid such personal transformations, emotional strains and complex historical developments in Greece that Papandreou discovered his mission as a radical populist leader and became, in turn, as Draenos says, "a political demiurge - the architect of a new politics". This was done by introducing a wholly novel conception of Greek society as divided into two parts, on the one side the "pure" people and on the other a sinister Establishment made up of both domestic and foreign forces.
Papandreou was certainly a maverick and, as this book clearly shows, must take his fair share of blame for the developments that eventually led to the dictatorship of 1967 to 1974. Draenos is, however, wrong to view him as a typical example of a liberal, progressive politician of the American "New Frontier" School. Rather, Papandreou became Greece's leading proponent of the purest tenets of US populism and its glorification of the average citizen struggling against a privileged Establishment.
When democracy returned to Greece, Papandreou returned to the political stage to continue his act, from almost the point the junta had broken it off. And, were we to judge from the duration of his rule, the enduring quality of his slogans and the long shadow his legacy still casts on today's Greece, Papandreou is arguably the most important populist leader in post-war democratic Europe.
Draenos has done a fine job in writing Papandreou's early political biography. He is advised to begin working on the sequel.
Andreas Papandreou: The Making of a Greek Democrat and Political Maverick
By Stan Draenos
I. B. Tauris, 352pp, £30.00
Published 30 June 2012