Silvio Berlusconi may be an international joke, but the world shouldn’t laugh: His fusion of politics and entertainment could soon catch on in other countries.
Were you to be so unwise as to combine the political shamelessness of Mitt Romney, the personal morality of John Edwards, the ego of Rudy Giuliani, and performance art that is Sarah Palin's career on the national stage, you would create a monster that approximates, but still cannot quite match, Silvio Berlusconi.
The Italian prime minister, who arrived in the United States this week to attend the United Nations General Assembly and the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh, is often, no usually, dismissed as a joke. Like the Porter in Macbeth, his role is to provide a moment of levity in otherwise grim and serious times.
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that “every society rests upon the death of men,” but Berlusconi’s survival is dependent upon the death of politics.
The paradox is that, while it is impossible to take Mr. Berlusconi seriously, it is necessary to do so because he represents the final fusion between politics and entertainment—and, consequently, a logical, if disconcerting, destination for politics in countries besides Italy.
It’s tempting to trot out the old saw that, while the state of politics in other countries may often be serious but never hopeless, in Italy it is often hopeless but rarely serious. But there's something to be said for the notion that, preposterous though he may be, he's also perfect for our times. What's worse, he might just be the kind of politician we deserve: a revolting clown.
To recap: Berlusconi has endured a summer of scandal that would have destroyed other, lesser men. Political careers, after all, rarely benefit from headlines proclaiming that Candidate X or Prime Minister Y " denies going to a prostitute." That's the least of Mr. Berlusconi's troubles, however.
The prostitute in question was Patrizia D'Addario, a high-class escort who sought the prime minister's help over a building permit in Bari and claims Berlusconi offered her a seat in the European Parliament instead. Sensibly, she turned him down.
The release of a series "sex tapes" purporting to be conversations between the two was dismissed by Mr. Berlusconi with the less than wholly convincing explanation that the tapes are false because he is not one of those "people [who] could pay for sex without the thrill of the conquest."
• More Daily Beast G-20 coverageMiss D'Addario was hardly the only younger woman whose company the prime minister has enjoyed. This year, Mr. Berlusconi's long-suffering wife Veronica demanded a divorce, saying she was fed up with her husband "frequenting minors"—most notably Noemi Letizia, a would-be lingerie model whose 18th-birthday party was graced with the prime minister's presence.
Berlusconi insists that nothing " spicy" occurred, but more than 30 young women are alleged to have attended his parties in recent months. Add in further controversies over Berlusconi's business career and increasingly strained relations with the Vatican and you can see why even he promised a “sober summer.”
Yet until this month his approval rating remained above 50 percent. Even now, he remains more popular than many of the prime ministers and presidents he will meet with in New York and Pittsburgh this week.
Berlusconi has a charmingly modest explanation for his success: "The majority of Italians in their hearts would like to be like me, and see themselves in me and in how I behave."
There may be some truth to this. The cynicism of the American electorate is nothing compared to that of its Italian counterpart. The average Italian presumes that the state is hopelessly inefficient and irredeemably corrupt in equal measure. After the Tangentopoli scandals of the 1990s, this skepticism is well-earned and revealed in the telling aphorism that, in Italy, "The friars are fat, but the monastery is poor." Nothing can surprise anyone any longer. In such a climate of wearied cynicism, shamelessness may thrive.
Politics has always been partly about personality, but the Death of Ideology in the aftermath of the Cold War put an end to politics as it had been practiced. Ideological conflict was replaced by managerialism. Victory in the Cold War destroyed socialism as it had been known and voters across Europe faced choices between parties offering only minor variations on a common theme. And when all candidates are, broadly speaking, offering the same medicine it makes sense to choose the one who at least promises a measure of entertainment. Berlusconi is tolerated by Italians at least in part because he offers a colorful alternative to a government of drab bureaucrats.
This is not a purely Italian phenomenon. George W. Bush's election was, at least in part, predicated upon the proposition that more men (mainly) would like to have a beer with Mr. Bush than with tedious old Al Gore. Gore might bore you with policy; Bush would talk about baseball.
Berlusconi takes this phenomenon to new heights. Since he controls, directly or indirectly, Italy's six principal television stations, it's appropriate that he turn Italian politics into a game show with the prime minister, in all his magnificent ghastliness, as the star. You could be forgiven for thinking that his rule is one long-running episode of Italian Idol. He even has his own song: a cheery ditty titled "Thank God, Silvio's Here!"
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that "every society rests upon the death of men" but Berlusconi's survival is dependent upon the death of politics. And once politics has gone, all that's left is show business.
The public, bless them, may not know what they want but they want what they know: entertainment. That in turn leaves one with the gloomy thought that if Silvio Berlusconi did not exist it would be necessary to invent him.
In other words, watching Berlusconi's show brings one of H.L. Mencken's most famous observations to mind:
I enjoy democracy immensely. It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing. Does it exalt dunderheads, cowards, trimmers, frauds, cads? Then the pain of seeing them go up is balanced and obliterated by the joy of seeing them come down. Is it inordinately wasteful, extravagant, dishonest? Then so is every other form of government: all alike are enemies to decent men. Is rascality at the very heart of it? Well, we have borne that rascality since 1776, and continue to survive. In the long run, it may turn out that rascality is an ineradicable necessity to human government, and even to civilization itself—that civilization, at bottom, is nothing but a colossal swindle.
Perhaps so, but at least Mr. Berlusconi will smile and tell us to enjoy the ride. That has to be worth something. Right?
Alex Massie is a former Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and The Daily Telegraph. He writes for The Spectator and blogs at www.spectator.co.uk/alexmassie.