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United States: Armenian Americans Reward Clinton

  • Bruce Keppel

Bellingham, Washington; 29 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton enters the closing days of his re-election campaign carrying the endorsement of a politically powerful ethnic American organization -- the Armenian National Committee.

Significantly for the presidential race pitting Democrat Clinton against his Republican challenger, former Senator Robert Dole, about half of the politically active Armenian-American community lives in the Pacific Coast state of California.

That state's political significance stems not only from California's being the most populous of the 50 states. What is more to the point, the presidential candidate who wins a majority of California's popular vote, even if by a single vote, also wins the largest number of electoral votes -- all 56 of them -- which are counted toward the actual winning of the presidency.

Most significant of all to presidential contenders, no victorious candidate has ever lost California. Clinton was endorsed by the Armenian National Committee four years ago, and he also carried California in defeating the then-incumbent president, Republican George Bush.

The ANC is based in the nation's capital and funded by contributions from the Armenian-American community, which it represents before the government. Given the fact that half of that community lives within California, the committee's Western regional office is well placed to gauge the mood of this significant bloc of ethnic voters.

There is also a second important Armenian American organization, the Armenian Assembly of America. It is a non-profit organization, and makes no endorsement -- but its members have displayed strong support for Dole.

The ANC's Western regional director, Vicken Sonnentz-Papazian, tells RFE/RL that choosing Clinton over Dole was a very difficult decision. The difficulty, Papazian says, lies in Dole's supportive record on Armenian issues over his three decades in Congress. Dole is, he says, a "good friend" of Armenian Americans and -- more recently -- of newly-independent Armenia.

This support, Papazian explains, dates from Dole's convalescence from the nearly fatal wounds that he suffered in Italy near the end of World War II. Guiding his recovery was a physician who was not only an Armenian American, but a survivor of what to Armenians was a genocide waged against them by Turks in the closing days of the Ottoman empire during the World War I.

But as good a friend of Armenians and Armenia as Dole has been, Papazian says, the Armenian National Committee had to conclude that, under Clinton's presidency, Armenian Americans have enjoyed unprecedented access to the White House. He says that for "the first time in history" they enjoy regular contact with decision-makers within the federal government's executive branch, which includes the Department of State.

Until the Clinton presidency, the committee had to work mainly through the Congress -- and particularly the House of Representatives -- to try to influence U.S. policies of interest to Armenian Americans. Chief among these concerns today, he says, is maintaining substantial foreign aid to support democracy in Armenia.

But, Papazian adds, "we felt that no matter who wins" in November, the result will be improved access for presenting the Armenian-American point-of-view in foreign affairs decision-making. He considers them "both good friends" of Armenians.

The task of explaining the endorsement to the Armenian-American community fell to Ara Khatchatourian, the editor of the English-language edition of "Asbarez," the leading Armenian-American newspaper.

Khatchatourian told RFE/RL that the central reason for backing Clinton over Dole was not based on comparing the two political leaders, but on a review of Clinton's record in the White House. Four years ago, "Asbarez" urged Armenian Americans to support Clinton's bid to unseat Bush in an election that was the first since Armenia's independence from the Soviet Union.

In the four years since Clinton took office, Khatchatourian says, Armenia has risen from virtual nonexistence to become the second largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid (calculated on a per capita basis). Only Israel ranks higher. At the same time, he adds, aid to the Armenian-Americans' arch enemy, Turkey, has diminished.

He calls the Clinton Administration's support for Armenia's struggling democracy extremely important these days to Armenian-American voters. That's why, Khatchatourian says, he appealed in his editorial to "Asbarez" readers that they forget personalities and base their electoral decision on an analysis of what Clinton's administration has done on their behalf.

The greatest area in which those readers would fault Clinton, Khatchatourian says, is in his barely visible support for a Congressional resolution last spring that would have recognized the mass slayings of Armenians by Turks between 1918 and 1923 as genocide. Dole was out front on that issue. Clinton, the editor says, remained silent.

"But in the political scheme of things," he adds, "you have to look at the broader picture" and not dwell on an individual issue, which in any case will likely be back next spring.

Whether massacre or genocide -- the planned extermination of a people as later perpetrated by the German Nazis against Jews and other groups -- Turkish oppression of Armenians is what drew so many Armenian survivors to the United States. The first wave came during a period of repression by the Ottoman Turks a century ago. The second wave came after the much more widespread killings that took place in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman empire.

The first wave of Armenian immigrants settled near their port of entry along the East Coast of the United States. This accounts for concentrations of Armenian Americans today in New York City, Boston and New Jersey. In those early days of the industrial revolution, that was where the jobs were.

Others later resettled in the low-lying central basin of California, centered on the farming community of Fresno, the city that was home to the best-known Armenian-American writer, the late William Saroyan. More recent urban immigrants from Armenia settling on the West Coast chose the southern part of the state. They are found today in Hollywood, a neighborhood of Los Angeles, and in the nearby city of Glendale, where Papazian today has his office and where "Asbarez" is published.

Papazian and editor Khatchatourian agree that the next four years of either a second Clinton Administration or a new Dole Administration looks upbeat from the Armenian-American point of view.

Papazian says he expects Clinton's present large lead over Dole to narrow as the November 5 election nears. But he goes on to say that "a betting man has got to go with Clinton," while adding that "anything can happen in politics."

Still, he concludes, in the world of democratic politics, "the important thing is to be in the game" -- to count in shaping the outcome of decisions important to you.

"Now," Papazian says, speaking of Armenian Americans, "we're in the game."