ITALY’S CIAO HOUND
THE ADVENTURES OF THE WORLD’S WACKIEST LEADER
By MADELEINE JOHNSON
The New York Post
April 12, 2009
Everybody knows one: the boy in grade school who made bunny ears behind the teacher’s head in the class photo. Or the uncle always ready with the whoopee cushion. Well, Italy has one, too. He’s the prime minister.
Last week at the G20 class picture with Queen Elizabeth, Silvio Berlusconi yelled “Meester Obama, Meester Obama” from the back row and hammed it up with US and Russian leaders Obama and Medvedev. He ignored German premier Angela Merkel while talking on his cellphone. Visiting the victims of Abruzzo’s tragic earthquake last week, German television caught him telling survivors in Abruzzo that staying in tents was “like a weekend in a campground.”
In 2002 he was photographed making horns behind the head of Spain’s foreign minister Josep Piqué. He congratulated victorious Obama as “young, handsome and tan.” He said Anders Fogh Rasmussen of Denmark was the best looking prime minister in Europe, even more handsome than Massimo Cacciari, the Venice mayor that gossip linked to Berlusconi’s wife Veronica Lario. He claimed that his “charm as a playboy” convinced President Tarja Halonen to drop Finland’s application to host a new European food ministry. During a European Parliament session, he said he would “propose” German parliament member Martin Schulz “for the role of kapo in a new Italian film on concentration camps.”
In Italy he has called anyone who wouldn’t vote for him a word your mother would not use. After several rapes prompted calls for army support for the police, he said there were not enough Italian soldiers for all Italy’s “belle donne.” To a young woman on a talk show about a difficult employment situation, he suggested marrying someone rich — like his son.
No chance for a come-on line, including to foreign officials, is wasted. Two years ago his wife of 27 years got fed up. At a media awards ceremony he quipped that if he weren’t already married, he would propose to Mara Carfagna, a former model who is now minister for equal opportunity in Berlusconi’s government. Lario lashed out at him in an open letter on the front page of national newspaper La Repubblica, suggesting that a public man owed her a public apology. She got one.
The world may see Berlusconi as Europe’s wackiest leader, but for Italians, who have elected him to three terms, the relationship is more complicated.
Italy’s richest man, Berlusconi’s fortune originated in 1970s real-estate developments in Milan, where he was cozy with local and national socialist administrations. Clever management and favorable legislation allowed him to build a telecommunications network that challenged the state’s television monopoly. Now, together with the newspaper he still owns, Il Giornale, and his influence over state TV, Berlusconi has a grasp of media many leaders would envy.
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When Berlusconi entered politics in 1994, he formed a conservative party that took its name from the cheer for his championship Milan soccer team, Forza Italia, or “Go Italy.” Supporters, including the country’s business and professional elite, hoped a man who mixes George Steinbrenner and Donald Trump would use his practical business skills to do a Reagan/Thatcher type revamp of Italy.
He has not. But that does not bother voters who brought him back a year ago after several years of an opposition government. They seem to accept his explanations of the gaffes, when he does not deny them altogether. After the Abruzzo camping comment, which some saw as his way of saying “look on the bright side,” a columnist in his newspaper said Berlusconi’s critics were “moralizing” journalists. Or, in the case of the outcry over Obama’s tan, Berlusconi falls back on his old stand-by “Can’t they take a joke?”
To many Italians, Berlusconi is a figure that reassures and inspires. In his gaffes and vulgarity, they see Italian foibles that are celebrated in popular annual holiday films. With titles such as “Christmas Vacation” and “Christmas on the Nile,” these comedies feature bathroom and sexual gags as Italians yucking it up abroad and at home. Italy is an immobile society, whose close-knit political and business establishment has seen little turnover, despite an economic boom after WWII and violent political unrest in the 1970s. Coming from the outside, Berlusconi thumbs his nose at the establishment, which is heartily enjoyed by a population that feels cut off from power.
As a self-made man, Berlusconi inspires Italians to dream they too can make it big in a world where personal connections trump education, qualifications and hard work. So what if he cut a few legal corners on the way up? That’s only part of the game.
Anyway, many say cynically, all politicians are corrupt. At least as Italy’s richest man, he doesn’t need to use his high office to feather his nest.
So if Berlusconi is popular at home, does it matter what whiny journalists and some humorless foreign leaders think? In an increasingly globalized world, it just might. With its uncompetitive economy and declining economic fundamentals, Italy risks marginalization. Except for Libya’s Qhaddafi, world leaders have been slow to confirm Berlusconi’s invitation to his Sardinian villa after the G8 summit that Italy will host in July.
After all, the class clown or the funny uncle may make you laugh, but you might not want them in your club.
Madeleine Johnson is a journalist based in Milan.