The Silvio Critiques
On February 24, 2013, the day of the Italian national elections, Frank Bruni published an article in the NY Times on the elections, and in a fit of pique, I responded to it. My comments are logged around noon of Feb.24. Having suggested that it would be befitting for Americans to keep quiet about Italian politics, I will now ignore that prescription. Silvio Berlusconi is the target of many foreign commentators such as Frank Bruni. His position can best be understood by non-Italians by comparing his role to a number of other public figures. It takes many of them to give a full picture and while I do not wish be seen as a defender of Mr. Berlusconi, it must be admitted that he doesn't fare too badly in some of the comparisons.
Berlusconi, the self-made man, came from a prosperous Milanese family and like Donald Trump, another son of a moderately wealthy family, used his entertaining manner and driving ambition to build a large personal fortune. Berlusconi started out as an entertainer on cruise ships then used his friendship with Bettino Craxi to build a real estate empire in Milan before turning to building even larger empires in media and politics. The Donald also had a good deal of success in real estate but at the end of the day, he got into the casino trade in Las Vegas and New Jersey, and starred on a cheesy reality show, whereas Berlusconi has managed to control roughly 90% of the media in Italy, becoming its richest man and, in a manner of speaking, turning it into one big casino.
Silvio Berlusconi is seen by the American press and most politicians and diplomats in Europe as a buffoon. His dealings with Angela Merkel and other European leaders are filled with gaffes and insults, intended or not, to a degree very similar to those of George W. Bush. Silvio's comments are often crude, rude, and insulting, but occasionally amusing. Those of Bush were often also funny, but the comedy was mostly due to his unprecedented mangling of the English language. There have been many books and calendars dedicated to his malapropisms. The major distinction between these two buffoons is that Berlusconi started neither wars nor major recessions.
As amoral, sexual predators go, JFK may have been the real thing. Bill Clinton got the label but, like so many others, from Ike and Wilbur Mills to Gary Hart and John Edwards, he succumbed to the allure of ambitious young women, themselves seduced by the proximity to power. Where others have denied their involvements, Silvio has, except when under indictment, bragged of his exploits, perhaps creating a womanizer image magnified out of all proportion to reality. Whatever his perceived sins in this area, he has never approached the hypocrisy of a Newt Gingrich, who publicly attacked Clinton for his sexual peccadillos while informing his cancer stricken wife in the hospital that he was divorcing her to marry his mistress.
With regard to conflicts of interest, it's more difficult to find anyone with a comparable issue, since Berlusconi's interests are so vast. Collectively the entire US Congress comes to mind. They are paid base salaries of $176,000 with generous benefits for working 126 days per year to represent the American public, but a large majority appear to be more richly rewarded by corporations for representing their interests in Congress. The ruling majority of the Supreme Court, which declared money speech and corporations citizens, seems to enjoy similar conflicts. Clarence Thomas's wife is highly paid to lobby for organizations dependent on favorable outcomes of SC decisions but we don't recall Justice Thomas (or his radical right brethren on the Court) reclusing himself on any such cases.
Being tall is a big advantage in politics. Both Presidents Washington and Lincoln towered over their peers, physically as well as metaphorically. It's virtually impossible to imagine Mitt Romney getting to run for any office if he stood at under 5'-8”. However, small men, from Napoleon to Michael Bloomberg, driven by ambition, talent, intellect, arrogance or presumption, have striven to make themselves great, sometimes with mixed results. Silvio Berluscono fits that mold.
The closest comparison to Berlusconi by any one man would have to be with that other media tycoon, Rupert Murdoch. Both men are active in numerous countries. Murdoch started in Australia, expanded into England and then metastasized into the US. Both have taken respected publications and turned them into trash. Berlusconi's operations have also expanded outside his native Italy. Although it did suffer setbacks in France, his TV empire has stretched into Spain and other European countries. Both men have successfully maneuvered to expand their media holdings, in opposition to anti-monopoly laws, to further their their political goals and personal fortunes. In their TV programming both have used attractive young women to bolster their ratings. Berlusconi's mostly appear semi-nude and dance, while Murdoch's blonds dress well and read Goebbels-style propaganda in the guise of news. Just imagine Murdoch buying up the NY Times, CBS, NBC, ABC, Time Magazine and the Dallas Cowboys, then starting his own political party from scratch, calling it “America's Team”; then taking over Congress and getting himself elected President, and you get some idea of Silvio Berlusconi's place in Italy.
Richard Nixon faced scandal as Vice President, serving under President Eisenhower, but he managed not only to extricate himself from that scandal and survive an unsuccessful run against Kennedy, but to come back from the political graveyard to be an almost two term President, before his paranoia-driven propensity for criminal activity terminated his presidency. Italy's own Comeback Kid has faced prosecution on many charges, been convicted on several, but has always managed to use Italy's bizarre rules regarding appeals and statutes of limitation to keep him out of harm's way. Last Fall, after his conviction, he announced his withdrawal from politics, but by February's elections, he was back in the fray, leading his party to a third place finish.
Karl Rove comes to mind as the only other present day political figure comparable to Berlusconi in wanting to win at any cost. The most recent charge against Berlusconi is that he paid several million Euros to a politician to switch to his party. He's also been known to bring expensive-to-defend lawsuits against journalists who have reported too accurately on his activities. Rove tends to favor raising obscene amounts of political “donations” to support chosen campaigns. He also is expert at inventing voter suppression measures. Both men suffered setbacks in the past year. We're unaware of any other achievements of Rove, but should they team up, he and Berlusconi could be a dangerous team.
Finally, in the New Face of the Year category, there are many candidates, but the best match I can come up with for a comparison to Berlusconi's penchant for spending vast wealth on cosmetic surgery of dubious value would be Jocelyn Wildenstein. The pictures speak for themselves.