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General News

Miller Center’s Antholis on U.S. Presidency, Greece’s Legacy to America

The Miller Center is “a nonpartisan affiliate of the University of Virginia that specializes in presidential scholarship, public policy, and political history, providing critical insights for the nation’s governance challenges,” as stated on its website.

The Center’s Director & CEO is William J. Antholis, who spoke with The National Herald on an array of issues, focusing on the American presidency, but also on the state of contemporary politics and on Greece’s important legacy to the United States.

Both of Antholis’ parents are of Greek descent – his mother was born there – and both “were deeply engaged in the Greek community when I was growing up,” he told TNH.

A LIFETIME ATUVA

Antholis grew up in Florham Park, NJ, but as a young boy knew that someday he’d attend the University of Virginia (UVA). “I was enamored with Thomas Jefferson,” Antholis said, “and my parents and I drove from the north to Florida and stopped in Monticello and UVA. Thomas Jefferson was a fanatic of Ancient Greece,” Antholis explained, and when he founded UVA, he modeled it after Ancient Athens’ historic Academy of Plato. “When I was seven years old, I said ‘this is where I’m going to college.’” And he did.

Antholis earned a bachelor’s degree in government and foreign affairs from UVA, and it was during that time that he discovered the Miller Center, through Inis Claude, a leading international relations scholar who had been Henry Kissinger’s professor at Harvard. Claude was a highly influential figure in Antholis’ study of foreign affairs, and renowned political analyst “Larry Sabato was another mentor,” on domestic matters. The Miller Center funded a year of Antholis’ doctoral studies at Yale, where he earned a PhD in politics, and recruited Antholis to become its director – he’s been leading the organization for eight years now – after having served as managing director for ten years at another highly prestigious DC think tank, the Brookings Institution.

William Antholis and PBS NewsHour anchor Judy Woodruff chat as they prepare for the inaugural James C. Lehrer Lecture at the University of Virginia Rotunda. (Courtesy, Miller Center)

Antholis characterized the Center’s study of the American presidency not as an end, but rather as a means through which to understand contemporary foreign and domestic challenges in the hope of generating effective solutions. Conceptualized to be a “Brookings at a public university,” the Center pointedly focused on being “an organization that would identify problems national in scope” and strive to resolve them using university resources.

Antholis discussed the Center’s oral histories, which it began conducting in 1977, having interviewed various members of President Ford’s cabinet (Ford’s presidency had ended three months earlier), including some who remained high-profile figures decades later, such as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Brent Snowcroft.

Since then, Antholis said, the Center has conducted oral histories of every subsequent president: Carter, Reagan, both Presidents Bush, and Bill Clinton. “We’re halfway through Obama and we’re planning for a Trump oral history,” he said.

POLARIZATION

As to the latter, in 2018, the Center’s hiring of Marc Short, who served as Director of Legislative Affairs in the Trump White House, resulted in a firestorm of backlash and two of the Center’s scholars resigning in protest, contending that bringing Short on board was “counter to the Center’s fundamental values of nonpartisanship, transparency, openness, a passion for truth and objectivity, and civility,” even as the Center’s process for gathering oral history mainly involves interviewing members of presidential administrations, who predominantly belong to the respective president’s party and substantially share his political ideology.

Objections to Short’s connection to Trump were intensified given the Unite the Right march in Charlottesville – a short walk from UVA’s campus – a year earlier, led by white supremacists carrying Nazi symbols and Confederate flags and openly shouting racist and anti-Semitic slurs. That both Antholis and Short clearly opposed those epithets did not quell objections to hiring Short. Antholis wrote a piece in the Washington Post (‘Never Has Our Work Been More Important than Now’: U-Va. Leader Defends Hiring of Outgoing Trump Official’, July 27, 2018), emphasizing that Short “brings a missing critical voice [to the debate] – one that represents members of Congress and the Republican Party who continue to support the president in large numbers.”

Antholis expanded on his disdain regarding the current level of political polarization in the United States. “I believe we are in desperate need of cross-party conversations,” he told TNH. In great part, Antholis attributes the increasing contempt for presidents by those who didn’t vote for them to legislative inertia. “Because Congress doesn’t work well, it’s harder and harder for presidents to accomplish legislative success,” he said. “That presents a paradox: they become more powerful but less popular. Since they can’t accomplish things through legislation, they do so by executive action. They have to keep their bases happy so they can be reelected, but that means the people who elected them in the primaries, not in the general election.” He cites President Biden as a rare exception, who has managed to buck the modern trend and get legislation through Congress, even beyond his first year. Nonetheless, Antholis points out that Biden too issued executive actions, and that those who complained about Trump using executive authority to build a border wall should also complain that Biden did so to forgive student loans.

Antholis is proud of the Center’s nonpartisan reputation, which helps it remain above the fray. He also believes a centrist approach is what’s needed to simmer the explosive political climate. He credits Presidents Clinton and the elder Bush for not succumbing to mounting partisan rancor and instead continuing to reach across the aisle.

In order for America’s two-party system to flourish, Antholis believes that “we need a strong Republican Party.” For too long, he says, the Republicans have tried to “draw to an inside straight” on the Electoral College instead of focusing on winning the popular vote. Regarding 2024, Antholis doesn’t think that Trump is the strongest Republican candidate, “but even if Ron DeSantis is the strongest, I’m not sure he has a message to command a popular vote majority. They remain a weak Republican Party. I think Republicans who win in blue states are better positioned to message Republican values for national majorities.”

GREECE’S LEGACY

When Antholis’ career in America’s political intellectual epicenter began, he didn’t want to be known as “the Greek kid who pushes Greek issues.” But over the years, he’s had a change of heart: “I came to realize the treasure that the Greek-American community is in the country. It is led by people who don’t see being Greek and being American in any way in conflict or in tension with one another,” he said.

He also credits Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, whom he hails for having the courage to support Ukraine, even though pro-Russia sentiment in Greece is higher than in Europe as a whole.

Antholis describes Mitsotakis as “a unique political figure. He’s a post-populist, educated in the United States, not only in our institutions of higher learning, but also in American business. The best of America and Greek America is embodied in Kyriakos, who I think may be one of the best democratically elected leaders in the world today.”

Antholis also realized that “before there were a lot of Greeks in America, Greece was already in America. What’s been important to me in this later stage of my career is learning the importance of Hellenic heritage to the United States. Even with my mom and dad selling that to me as a kid, I undervalued it. Socrates wasn’t just a citizen of Athens; he was a citizen of the world. And Greece defined that. And embracing that is the legacy of Greece.”

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