Monday, September 15, 2003

Manichæan Silvio - a tactic or does he really mean it?
Unspun Berlusconi or how not to deal with the press

There have been two episodes and as many rows in The Spectator saga (6 and 13 September) and, at this rate, there’ll be more next week; in them Silvio Berlusconi confirms his frequent claims to “tell it the way it is” or at least the way he thinks it is.

Last week, he said that to be a judge in Italy, “you need to be mentally disturbed, you need psychic disturbances. If they do that job it is because they are anthropologically different!” This week, he said that Mussolini was a “benign dictator” who “never killed anyone” but had sent the opposition “on holiday” to internal exile.

By any standards, Berlusconi is a serial brickdropper, but the question is, does he do it to cultivate an image of a plain-talking guy in touch with his supporters or does he actually believe what he says? I fear it is the latter; Berlusconi is a master of promotion and advertising, but when it comes to spin or even presentation of difficult issues, he is a tyro. He presumes that he does not need to be subtle, give nuances, or room for manoevre. Given his background as a businessman whose word was not contradicted plus his present wealth and control of the media, one can see where the presumption comes from. Hence, too, the all-or-nothing, Manichæan tone to so many of his outbursts.

With a long tradition of “ideological” politics, Italy has always had this tendency that paradoxically continues despite the end of the Cold War and, as some have put it, the “end of ideology.” Berlusconi is still very much an ideologist, one of those Japanese soldiers lost in the jungle still fighting World War II after 20 years since the end of hostilities. Except that he does know exactly what has happened since the end of the Cold War. Surely that means he is in bad faith then and that all these bricks are knowingly dropped? Too easy. Apart from a few great actors, most good liars manage to convince themselves that they are telling the truth. Berlusconi falls into this category. Furio Colombo put it nicely in L’Unità (12 September). He wrote that the Prime Minister is “overcome by hyperactive narcissism” that excludes interaction with the real world. This allows him to keep a straight face when he says that judges are part of a Communist plot when they prosecute him and honest servants of the law when they acquit him. Or when he implies that the “left” equals “Communism,” conveniently forgetting that in Italy and abroad strong opposition to Soviet communism came from the left. To make such an equation is to show political and historical ignorance and to denigrate the sacrifices made by that opposition. It would be like saying that all conservatives are either real or crypto Nazis.

When he is caught out on any of these scores, he never retracts, he just says he was misquoted, taken out of context, or that it was meant as a joke.

Last year, the Minister of the Interior was forced to resign because he called a consultant murdered by the Red Brigades “a ball-breaker only interested in having his contract renewed” after he had the dead man’s escort removed. The Minister’s boss feels he has no such obligations to take responsibility for what he says.

He does not apologize; instead he attacks and says the opposition (usually defined as “leftwing” or even “Communist”) is exploiting the situation. Tullia Zevi, the former president of the Union of Jewish Communities (herself a victim of fascism), was explicit, “What need does the left have to exploit his words? ... you just have to listen to him because what he says is truly eloquent” (Corriere della Sera, 12 September).

It is all the more ironic that his bricks were published in an otherwise fawning interview where the authors complimented his physical features (“…nipples showing through his white Marlon Brando pajama-suit.”) and political prowess (“Is he a good thing? Our answer is an unambiguous yes.”) and made snide comments about Anna Lindh, the Swedish Foreign Minster killed this week. The Economist, the other English scourge of Mr. B., is explicitly highly critical, but would support his policies if he only set about implementing them.

A final (ironic) word on the Spectator interview; it begins with a rapturous compliment from Berlusconi on the power of an olive tree ‘Look’ he says, pointing his flashlight. ‘Look at the strength of that tree”. Perhaps the opposition, the Ulivo or Olive Tree Alliance, should have taken more solace from that remark than rage at the bricks.

For comments, please write to James Walston at

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