Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Italy: The Berlusconi Background

Newsweek International Cover: The Rise and Fall of Berlusconi, 26 March 2006
Is Italy's flamboyant leader going down in flames?

When I first started reporting this cover story on Silvio Berlusconi, I was convinced that, despite the fact he was trailing in the polls, he would win the Italian elections to be held on April 9 and 10. His friend Giuliano Ferrara of Il Foglio had written that Berlusconi's strenght lay not only in the fact that he owned most private television networks in Italy, and controlled those run by the state, but that he is himself a television star. Love him or hate him, you don't forget him. Even if you are screaming at your television set, you can't take your eyes off of him. All of this, I thought would give Il Cavaliere the edge over his left-wing challenger Romano Prodi when Italians actually came to cast their ballots. I had interviewed Prodi twice, once as president of the European Commission, and once late last year when the campaign was in its early days, and the man, while apparently kind, beatific, almost priestly in demeanor, is also deadly boring.

Toward the end of February, I finally got an interview with Berlusconi, and found him to be much more defensive than I'd expected. His trademark has always been his confidence, no matter what plague of prosecutions, revelations and defamations descended on him. But now he seemed tense. As we started to talk, a vein stood out on the right side of his face. He wanted to recite a record of accomplishments, and kept trying to keep to that line, but he acted like a man who's been coached too much, his head cluttered with rote details that he'd always thought irrelevant. And our questions, while to the point, were far from hostile. We laughed a lot, especially when discussing Berlusconi's supposed penchant for comparing himself to everyone from Napoleon to Churchill to Jesus Chris.

My colleagues Jacopo Barigazzi, Barbie Nadeau and I were still working on the assumption that Berlusconi would build continuous momentum over the next six weeks and finally triumph at the polls, even if with a fairly small margin. A few days later, when he went to Washington to be received by President Bush and address a joint session of Congress, he seemed to be on a roll. Indeed, the American lawmakers gave him a standing ovation. (In the meantime, the Italian press reaction to our interview with Berlusconi, focusing on my observation that he wore "pancake make-up" -- without seeming to understand the idiom, trying to suggest he looked like he had a crepe on his face -- was testament to the trivialization that takes place in the Italian press.)

In that same interview -- which went on formally for 90 minutes and informally for another 30 - Berlusconi made it clear he was campaigning as much against Europe as against former EC President Prodi. And to a great extent he seemed to want to portray himself as the last Cold Warrior, taking on Communists still determined to bring icy gray Stalinism to la Bella Italia. His thinking was at once post-Europe and pre-Europe, and if some of his allegations were outlandish, some also made obvious sense. Clearly the upward valuations of the euro have been harmful to Italian exports, even if there are other compensating, stabilizing reasons to keep the single currency. And it is all too obvious that the 11-party coalition of Prodi is going to be shaky from the start, if it wins, and likely to fall sooner rather than later. So our original thought was to write a cover story in early March saying something like "Berlusconi: Why He'll Win, and Why Europe Should Worry."

For various reasons having nothing to do with Berlusconi and everything to do with the urgency of other stories, like President Bush's trip to India, the magazine decided to run a brief version of the interview itself (a Q&A in the International edition; a through-written piece in the domestic American one), and wait a week or two to publish the longer opus that would focus more on the European issues.

Then -- something happened, and while we can trace the events, what I don't understand at this point are the precise causes. One big problem, certainly, was the first debate. Berlusconi looked stiff, constipated, uncomfortable. Prodi, while boring as ever, at least seemed relaxed. We'd been looking to run the Berlusconi cover the week after the debate, but now his numbers were trending strongly in the wrong direction, making it very hard to predict, as we'd expected we would, that he would be the winner. So we waited another week, and by that time it seemed clear that Silvio had lost his trademark smile. Hence, the cover story that ran.

Could Berlusconi still pull off a victory? Perhaps. But neither he nor Prodi is likely to have a strong government, and after listening to their second debate last night (on which I commented for Sky TV's Italian network), my sense is that neither candidate is treating the public with much respect. The fact is, Italy is going to have to go through some wrenching economic reforms if it is going to compete with -- or participate in -- Europe. One wishes it were otherwise. But as the English saying goes, wishes aren't horses, even for Il Cavaliere. - C.D.

Also see: Italy: Berlusconi, Up Close and Personal

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