Ted Koppel doesn't have a drop of Greek blood but they loved him. They went nuts over President Bush, even if he was the only person in the room with a one-syllable name. But the 2,800 Greek Americans crammed into the Sheraton Washington ballroom last night went rock-star wild over a 75-year-old bearded priest from a seedy quarter of old Istanbul.
The unassuming star of the closing banquet of the Greek Orthodox Biennial Clergy-Laity Congress was Dimitrios I, spiritual leader of the 250 million Orthodox Christians in the world.
"These are very pastoral, very spiritual people," said former CBS News correspondent Ike Pappas. "What you have here is a contrast of two worlds and two styles. It's one church, but in the United States we do things differently."
No kidding. It's not likely that His All Holiness has ever encountered the scene before him in the packed ballroom: a sea of shouting, adoring fans in tuxedos and sequins, some hanging off the balcony, some standing on chairs. Most had videocams: Can "America's Most Religious Home Videos" be far behind?.
"I've been wondering for quite some time why you would ask me to introduce a man who you all hold in such great reverence," Koppel told the shouting, clapping audience. "And I'm afraid, Mr. President, we're not talking about you."
President Bush returned the parry. "When Ted said that, 'the person we hold in such reverence,' I was ready," he joked. "You see, I'm used to it now. I thought he was talking about Barbara."
Dimitrios, who is considered "first among equals" in the churches of Eastern Christianity, is in Washington on the first stop of a national tour and first-ever visit to North America by an ecumenical patriarch.
"He is what you'd call a real religious man. He feels a special obligation that his visit should be a shot in the arm for Orthodoxy in the United States," said Veterans Affairs Secretary Ed Derwinski, who has spent the week with the patriarch.
"The only complaint he's had -- and it's a mild one -- is that he hasn't had time to do the tourist things. He did see the fireworks, and he had a little boat trip on the Potomac. But beyond that, he's just been driven from official function to official function."
Last night's affair was a tad less official than the rest. Introducing Bush, Koppel said, "I will not point out that you are responsible for preventing the first Greek American from becoming president of the United States."
But Michael Dukakis's nemesis was nonetheless greeted enthusiastically by the audience from 555 parishes, representing the 6 million Orthodox Christians across the country. "The world rejoices that the new freedoms of the past year mean that your Orthodox followers in so many lands are now once again able to follow freely and openly the road of holy light," Bush said.
Dimitrios, speaking through an interpreter, said, "In such a nation as this, where moral principles are valued and where social acceptance implies virtue and hard work, such recognition by the state ... represents an honor for our church and people."
All in all, the visit has been quite a triumph -- except for one little problem, according to Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.).
"I think the patriarch is having a little trouble adjusting to the Washington summer weather."
Special correspondent Marianne Kyriakos contributed to this report.