Silvio Berlusconi: An Italian Mirror
What do Italians make of Silvio Berlusconi? Easy. Most think: "He's one of us." He loves his family, his football, his friends, his food. And his money, of course. He praises the church in the morning, family values in the afternoon and hangs around with young women at night — at 72, that's quite an achievement. He is fun, no doubt. On the left, most politicians are boring. Beating them? Piece of cake, for Silvio the maverick.
Many Italians don't care about his conflicts of interest (who hasn't got a few?) or his problems with the law (defendants are more simpatico than prosecutors). Broken promises, half-truths, unanswered questions? The word accountability doesn't translate well into Italian. This is the land of human nature, as one American traveller once said. And of emotional politics. France is a bit like that too. It's no coincidence that a bright, quick, short populist, who also happens to be a bit of a ladies' man, is running the show in Paris. Like us, the French see politicians the way the British see City bankers. We forget and forgive, even though we shouldn't. (See pictures of Italy.)
His gaffes? The majority of Italians think Berlusconi just speaks his mind, and they don't care if foreigners are puzzled, or worse. Some remarks are unforgivable, of course. Obama's suntan, jokes about concentration camps, sexist comments. If you head a government you must know that your words — reported instantly, compressed into sound bites — can baffle foreigners. Italians abroad know this. They complain, rightly, that Berlusconi's faux pas allow those who don't like Italy to ridicule us, ignoring the good things we do around the world.
To be fair, foreign media sometimes exaggerate the incidents. Calling out to the American President in front of Queen Elizabeth II, after the official photo op at the G-20 in London ("Mr. Obamaaa! I'm Mr. Berlusconi!") was a lovely Borat moment — harmless, and quite funny. Talking on his mobile while Angela Merkel was waiting for him at the NATO summit? He was just showing off ("I can convince Turkish leader Erdogan to accept Rasmussen as head at NATO. Leave it to me, guys.") And when he told earthquake victims in Abruzzo to think of their situation "like a weekend of camping," sure, it didn't sound good to an outsider. But most Italians understood Mr. B. was just trying to sdrammatizzare, to play down the situation, defuse the tension.
Berlusconi is a seasoned politician (he was first in office in 1994, and he's the only European head of government born before World War II), and he knows that international misunderstandings don't harm him at home — and often quite the contrary. Those who criticize him don't vote for him anyway.
His gaffes are not part of any grand strategy. Most likely they are spontaneous, the result of nouveaux-riches insecurities, fermented in self-esteem and turned into cockiness. Proud of his achievements — first real estate, then television and soccer, finally politics — the man thinks he can say what he likes, when he likes to whomever he likes. (See 10 things to do in Rome.)
He's popular. A mixture of Juan Perón and Frank Sinatra. Never a dull moment. Does the Italian media criticize him? Not his papers and his TV stations. Nor, with a few exceptions, state-controlled outlets such as Rai. The right-wing press adores him. The left-wing press despises him. Only a few papers — including my own Corriere della Sera — discuss him day by day, case by case, column by column.
Does this make Italy an authoritarian state? Of course not. We are too anarchic to allow anyone to tell us what do for long (they all failed, from Caesar Augustus to Benito Mussolini). Berlusconi has won three elections, lost two, and democracy is alive and (almost) well. Italy is like a postmodernsignoria — think the Sforza in Milan, the Medici in Florence — led by a benevolent elder well-liked by his subjects.
Is Berlusconi a good Prime Minister? Let's just say he's not much worse than his predecessors, and he sells himself better. He hasn't solved Italy's perennial problems — runaway public debt, red tape, organized crime, corruption, a grinding justice system and aging infrastructure — but at least he's provided stability. Italy averaged almost a government a year between the end of World War II and the turn of the century. Berlusconi completed his term between 2001 and 2006; re-elected in 2008, he may well last until 2013. (Read: "Why Berlusconi Loves a Good Gaffe.")
The truth is that Berlusconi is not only Italy's head of government, but the nation's autobiography. He combines generosity, inconsistency, acting talent, stamina, tactical lapses of memory and loyalty. He promises things he doesn't do, and does things he's never mentioned. His Italian opponents — even the best, the most honest and lucid — are right to worry. Not about Berlusconi himself. But about the Berlusconi inside them.
Severgnini, a columnist for Corriere della Sera, is the author of La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind