Wednesday, May 6, 2009
(Silvio Berlusconi, Prime minister of Italy, and wife Veronica Lario)
Silvio Berlusconi has been back in the news recently since his wife has decided to file for a divorce. Former actress Veronica Lario (who bears a passing resemblance to Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, if you've ever seen the movie) issued a terse one sentence statement three days ago saying, "It's a personal issue.....which is in the private sphere and which seems necessary not to speak about."
She's certainly had plenty to say in the past. Just last week, angry at her husband for having lined up showgirls and TV starlets as European Parliament candidates, she said, "The impudence and shamelessness of power offends the credibility of all [women], and damages women in general."
But Silvio Berlusconi has always shown a certain impudence. When he held a joint press conference with Danish leader Anders Rasmussen in 2003, he declared, "Rasmussen is the most handsome Prime Minister in Europe. I'm thinking of introducing him to my wife because he's much more handsome than Cacciari." (At the time, Berlusconi's wife was rumored to be having an affair with leftist philosophy professor Massimo Cacciari.)
Berlusconi himself, of course, has been linked to countless women, as befits an energetic Mediterranean with a net worth reputedly over nine billion dollars. And he is very uninhibited about expressing both his desires and his opinions, which makes him very quotable.
Whether you view Berlusconi's behavior as boyishly mischevious, or as coarse, depends on your point of view. A few examples:
in 2002, at a European Union summit, Berlusconi held up two fingers (making the sign of a cuckold) behind the head of the Spanish foreign minister, Josep Pique. Berlusconi later explained that he was "just kidding" and that he was trying to create friendship, cordiality, fondness, and kind relationships among the attendees. Oh, and he was also trying to amuse a small group of Boy Scouts who happened to be present.
In 2003, while acting as President of the European Union, Berlusconi told the assembled heads of state that they should lighten the mood by talking about "soccer and women." He then suggested to Gerhard Schroder, the former German Chancellor who had been married several times, that he might have some good stories to tell.
In May of 2005, Berlusconi claimed that he had been forced to "dust off my playboy skills" to convince Finnish president Tarja Halonen, who is not known for her looks, to agree to open the European Food Safety Authority in Parma, rather than Finland. This comment caused great consternation in Finland. (A minister in Berlusconi's Cabinet later excused his boss by saying, "Anybody who had seen a picture of Halonen must have known he was kidding.")
In 2006, Berlusconi defended claims he had made that "the Communists used to eat children" by saying that during the era of Chairman Mao, the Chinese "did not eat children, but had them boiled to fertilize the fields." Berlusconi later said, "It was questionable irony. Because this joke is questionable. But I do not know how to restrain myself."
At an awards dinner in 2007, Berlusconi announced to former showgirl and Forza Italia representative Mara Carfagna, "If I weren't already married, I would marry you right away. With you, I'd go anywhere." (Mara Carfagna is now serving under Berlusconi as Minister for Equal Opportunities.)
During the lead up for the 2008 Italian elections, Berlusconi observed that right-wing female politicians were far better-looking than the left-wing ones. After the center-left parties objected to his sexism, he further offered, "The left has no taste, even when it comes to women."
Shortly after Barack Obama was elected President, Berlusconi said Russian President Medvedev should have no problem getting along with him, because Obama is "tall, handsome, and suntanned."
When asked if he would be attending Obama's inauguration, however, Berlusconi declined, saying, "I'm not an extra in a movie cast; I'm a lead actor."
In 2009, two days after the earthquake which took 290 lives near Abruzzo, Berlusconi suggested that the newly homeless should view their experience as a camping weekend.
It's a little like what would happen if they appointed Charles Barkley President of the United States.
Perhaps a better comparison would be Donald Trump, except that Trump takes himself too seriously (and he's not nearly as rich). If you're looking for a billionaire who actually seems to enjoy his money as much as Berlusconi does, Richard Branson comes to mind. But Branson gives off a liberal, hippieish vibe that makes him the opposite of Berlusconi. It's hard to think of an American equivalent of Berlusconi, since Berlusconi's domination (read: ownership) of the Italian media is so complete. Perhaps as far as tycoons go, Mexico's Carlos Slim Helu would be a better comparison. But Helu has no political ambitions, and no personal flair.
The coverage Berlusconi gets is not dissimilar to what Idi Amin, the former Ugandan dictator from the 1970's, used to get. Amin, known mostly for his buffoonish antics before his bloodthirsty side was revealed to the world, would always have several of his more colorful antics described whenever there was an article about him. Similarly, it's hard to find an article about Berlusconi which doesn't include several of his more colorful remarks (this post obviously being no exception).
There is a darker side to Berlusconi as well. Much of his energy while in office has been spent pushing legislation which would be helpful to his business interests. And he has been linked to the Mafia. (One does not rise from cruise ship singer to multi-billionaire without having a hard edge.) This post is not an attempt to justify his politics. It is merely to give a sense of his personality.
Is he too much of a buffoon or is the rest of the world (especially the Anglo-Saxon world) too stiff?
The truth is probably somewhere in between. What is beyond question is that he is far more entertaining than most heads of state.
Most headlines are not very inviting. But if I see the word "Berlusconi" in one, I'll read the article.
That's saying something.