Silvio Berlusconi, the controversial prime minister of Italy whose political career and personal life has been marked by a seemingly endless series of scandals, is now facing allegations that he paid for sex with an underage prostitute.
Yet, Signor Berlusconi will probably survive this latest transgression as he has weathered many others in his remarkable career.
Indeed, he has lived a fantastic life that most men can only dream of – a life that could inspire dozens of movies. Billionaire, media tycoon, construction boss, political giant, and, yes, serial womanizer and probably mob-connected.
A man like Berlusconi could never hope to attain high political office in the United States – he is far too sleazy, colorful, controversial, erratic and downright sinister to be taken seriously by the American media and electorate.
Contemporary American politicians are constrained by hordes of assistants and spin-doctors to utter bland press releases and are discouraged from ever speaking freely or to improvise. They look and sound more like corporate executives than inspiring political leaders.Berlusconi has no such restrictions.
In his latest imbroglio, Berlusconi is being investigated for abuse of power over allegations that he pressured police to free a 17-year-old nightclub dancer from custody. His former ally Gianfranco Fini urged him to step down at a public rally, citing his moral decadence.
However, if, like me, you view politics primarily as a form of entertainment, then Berlusconi is a veritable one-man, three-ring circus. Consider the following list of just a fraction of his antics over the years:
*Berlusconi characterized himself as the most persecuted person in the entire history of the world.*Berlusconi told a female politician that she was more beautiful than intelligent – sparking understandable outrage from women and feminists.*Berlusconi prevented the publication of hundreds of photos of beautiful young women (including strippers and prostitutes) who attended raucous parties held in his villa.*After earning praise for quickly helping the victims of an earthquake in the town of L'Aquila – he then suggested to the survivors to view their misfortune like it was spending a weekend of camping.*His British attorney David Mills was convicted of receiving a large bribe, allegedly from Berlusconi himself.*He has survived a number of corruption trials and allegations of such crimes as bribing justice officials, embezzlement, tax fraud and false accounting.*Berlusconi's estranged wife, Veronica Lario, humiliated him by writing an open letter to Italian newspapers condemning her ex-husband for frolicking with young ladies (“consorting with minors”).*Berlusconi playfully noted that US President Barack Obama's has a tan.*He once told an audience of businessmen that it is better to be passionate about beautiful women than to be gay (the crowd laughed uproariously).*He was accused of fraud and embezzlement over a TV rights acquisition.*He looks younger than his age (74) because of a hair transplant and plastic surgery around his eyes.*He had a “questionable” relationship with 19-year-old underwear model Noemi Letizia.
However, through all these infractions (and many more, some serious transgressions, others trivial), Berlusconi has survived and even prospered. In many court trials, he was either acquitted or had his convictions quickly overturned. Incredibly, he has served three terms, making him the longest-serving Italian head of state since Mussolini.
Berlusconi is a survivor and possesses enormous style, charisma and elegance… and he is wildly entertaining. In America, he’d be dismissed as a clown, or much worse.
In the U.S., in order to have the broadest appeal to a huge nation of 300-million, a Presidential candidate has to be as inoffensive, bland and, let’s be honest, “dull” as possible.
Barack Obama is a smart guy, but he’s as boring as dishwater (even if his opponents accuse him of being an “extremist” and “Marxist”). George W. Bush was utterly devoid of “color” (much like his father). Bill Clinton, despite being an admitted adulterer, cannot hold a candle in that department to a Casanova like Berlusconi.
In the U.S., controversy and scandal usually kill political careers (with some notable exceptions). Plus, the media saturation coverage (via television and now the omnipresent internet) forces Presidential candidates to be on their “best” behavior at all times.
Perhaps the last U.S. President who could be described as “colorful” and “eccentric” was Harry Truman, who parlayed his rural Missouri background into a national political career and frequently uttered funny lines to the press. However, ol’ Harry was a homespun country boy, devoted to his wife Bess and wasn’t exactly blessed with good looks, style and elegance.
Richard Nixon might be an interesting case – an extremely polarizing and somewhat-eccentric character that both inspired hatred and admiration in equal amounts from the public. But ‘Tricky Dick’ lacked charisma and charm; he usually appeared stiff, overly-formal and uncomfortable in public (rather strange qualities for someone living in the public eye much of his adult life). Moreover, he couldn’t survive the Watergate scandal, nor would he be able to fully rehabilitate his image during the last two lonely decades of his life. Compared to the kinds of scandals Italian politicians have been constantly embroiled in, the Watergate break-in and cover-up seems rather mild and inconsequential.
If Ted Kennedy had ever won the Presidency, then perhaps we would have had our own “Berlusconi.” Or maybe not. Teddy’s main “sins” were alcohol and adultery (and that little matter at Chappaquiddick). Otherwise, he was a fairly dedicated legislator and wasn’t prone to making inflammatory statements or other verbal gaffes.
In the U.S., one is far more likely to find eccentric, controversial and memorable politicians in local regions – that is, those statesmen with a rabid, concentrated following, but with no hopes of ever gaining national appeal.
For example, Jesse Helms, the fearsome Republican senator of North Carolina, was probably the most right-wing American politician of modern times. Reviled by liberals and moderates across the country (including those in his home state), Helms had such a passionate following among local white conservatives, he remained in power for three decades. But “Senator No” had no chance of ever appearing on a national ticket.
Frank Rizzo was the bombastic Mayor of Philadelphia during the 1970s and made a legion of enemies, particularly among the intelligentsia and local media. He repeatedly infuriated blacks, liberals, and others, but he was adored by his blue-collar, white ethnic constituents who admired his no-nonsense approach to law and order, his lack of refinement, and his modest lifestyle.
The Reverend Al Sharpton, the buffoonish civil rights activist, has never actually held political office, but he has dominated the New York City political landscape for over thirty years and is widely sought-after for his opinions on various topics. Portly Sharpton is a hilarious, outrageous, blustery old-time “preacher” who often elicits hostility and derision. He did, in fact, run for president once, but, naturally got nowhere.
During the early 1990s, billionaire software executive H. Ross Perot made for a near-viable Third Party candidate for president – he collected a surprising number of votes. But, with his ferret-like face, rabbit-ears, short height, and funny Texas accent, he was a comedic figure that most people did not take seriously. A hugely successful businessman, yes, but too much of cartoon character to become leader of the free world.
In the recent gubernatorial election in the state of New York, Republican challenger Carl Palladino ran a bizarre, erratic campaign in which he attacked blacks, gays and even threatened a reporter with violence. The media lambasted the billionaire Buffalo businessman as a clown, unfit to hold high office, and potentially dangerous. He was (not surprisingly) trounced by the acceptable “establishment” candidate, Democrat Andrew Cuomo. Palladino did so poorly, in fact, that the top leaders of his own Republican Party refused to support him.
Politicians like Berlusconi are vanishing from western nations – there is simply too much media scrutiny on leaders to tolerate the slightest bit of controversy or eccentricity. Keep in mind, that long before the advent of television and the internet, there were plenty of colorful American politicians, including Jimmy Walker, the stylish, hard-drinking mayor of New York City in the 1920s who openly defied Prohibition; James Michael Curley, the mayor of Boston who actually once carried out his duties while imprisoned in a jail cell; and Huey Long, the legendary “Kingfish” of Louisiana.
But such men no longer exist – or, if they do, they have no chance of winning elections; and we are left with a depressing array of dull, bland, sterile automatons as our “political leaders.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.