Silvio Berlusconi and Me – Part I

Silvo Berlusconi greeting supporters in Italian parliament. Freeze Frame of APTN fille footage.

On Saturday night Silvio Berlusconi – the man who has dominated Italian politics for the last 18 years- drove from his Roman residence Palazzo Grazioli up the street to Italy’s Quirinale Presidential Palace and submitted his resignation as Prime Minister. He had to take a round-about route because the streets were filled with joyful protesters who shouted “buffoon” as his car passed. In the piazza outside the Quirnale a small orchestra was playing Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.

My own 16-year-old son, who has grown up with Berlusconi dominating Italian politics and media, stopped by Berlusconi’s residence to take part in the excitement.

It was a sad political end for Silvio, but I see him as a sort of jack-in-the-box, I have a feeling he may pop up and surprise us all again.

Strangely, I feel a personal tie to Silvio Berlusconi. I arrived in Italy in November 1993 launching into a new phase of life, newly-married to an Italian, ready to start a family and ready to cover a new beat—Italy and the Vatican. At the same time Italy’s wealthiest man, billionaire, media-mogul Silvio Berlusconi decided to enter into politics. Several months after I arrived in Rome, in March 1994, Berlusconi’s new Forza Italia party won parliamentary elections. At the time I was working for CBS Radio and that night—feeling unprepared– I dragged my husband with me to the Jolly Hotel in Rome where Berlusconi was celebrating his victory. I managed to push my way up in near Berlusconi and at the last second turned to Gustavo and said, “what should I ask him?” Gustavo said, “ask him if he wants to be Prime Minister.”

In retrospect the question seems absolutely absurd. Berlusconi has now been the longest serving Italian Prime Minister since World War II, and has dominated politics for the past 18 years, almost as long as Mussolini’s 20-year dominance of the country. At the time, however, many people wondered why such a successful businessman would want to jump into the messy business of Italian politics.

This week I had the chance to interview many analysts about Berlusconi. Franco Pavoncello, President of John Cabot University in Rome thought perhaps Berlusconi may go down in history as more influential in changing Italy than Mussolini. Professor James Walston of the American University of Rome told me, “Berlusconi completely destroyed any idea of a conflict of interest, and affirmed the idea that it is acceptable that somebody who is the wealthiest man in the country, and who has vast media interests can also have political power.” Film Producer Roberto Faenza, who made the documentary film “Silvio Forever” told me, “Berlusconi is the inventor of a new kind of dictatorship, which is the media dictatorship.”

When Silvio Berlusconi became Prime Minister of Italy, many people were optimistic that he could change Italy. He was, at that time, and continues to be, one of Italy’s richest men. I once interviewed a fisherman on the shore of the Bay of Naples a few days before the 2001 election. He said he was going to vote for Berlusconi because “I want him to make me and Italy rich, just like him.”

After I had been hired by Associated Press Television, out of the blue on a Saturday afternoon one of Berlusconi’s aides, Miti Simonetto, called me and said if I came to Berlusconi’s Villa near Milan in a few hours he would give me an interview. I was told not to bring a cameraman, Berlusconi would provide his own. Again, I was a bit naïve. I should have insisted on bringing one of my more-experienced wire-side colleagues, and an APTN cameraman. But her ground rules were set, and I chose to get my mini-scoop, so I hopped on the next plane to Milan and got a ride to Arcore, where Berlusconi has his famous Villa San Martino.

Inside, I was awed by the opulence. I remember a waiter serving me coffee in beautiful porcelain china with dainty silver spoons and the gold faucets in the bathroom. Before the interview Berlusconi’s loyal aide Paolo Bonaiuti sat with me and grilled me on everything I might possibly ask. Berlusconi was leaving nothing to chance. The interview was filmed in his sky-blue studio with two of his cameraman. He had plenty of make-up on. I asked him if his cameramen could shoot some “cut-aways” – wide shots, close ups of his hands, him talking to an aide or walking into the room– so I would have something with which to edit the interview. He said “no”. Back then he already had a reputation as a racconteur, a jokster and story-teller. I asked him if he might share one of his jokes with me, again he said “no”.

In the United States Berlusconi was seen as a self-made man: he started as a cruise-line crooner and became a billionaire. Italians were familiar with his TV channels (Canale 5, Italia 1, and Rete 4), his inexpensive clothing stores (Oviesse, Upim), his supermarket chain (Standa), and his soccer team (AC Milan). He also owned the Mondadori Empire including newspapers, magazines and publishing houses.

Personally, working in Italy in the TV business, I noticed the enormous difference in efficiency and effectiveness in dealing with people at Berlusconi’s channels compared to the painfully slow and inefficient bureaucracy at the state-run TV RAI. Many in the US thought that maybe this man was the right person to pull Italy out of its economic and political stagnation and were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

In the UK, the feeling towards Berlusconi was much more hostile. On July 26, 2001, The Economist magazine had a photo of Berlusconi on its cover with the headline “Why Berlusconi is Unfit to Lead.” The magazine hammered Berlusconi on questions of conflict of interest and corruption.

In sharp contrast, when Berlusconi entered politics, many Italians I spoke to seemed less bothered by accusations of corruption against Berlusconi. An Italian businessman, who no longer works in Italy, once told me that, to do his job in Italy, he had to break the law in small or big ways every day. He explained that it was a complicated game of paying people under the table, of contractors never wanting to provide receipts, and of paying bribes to get contracts. Corruption happens at all levels of Italian society. My close friend worked as a secretary in the Italian Parliament for a group of MP’s for 20 years. Her salary was always handed to her in cash. The MPs did not want to pay taxes or give her benefits.

Back in the 90s, the first time I looked into renting an apartment in Rome, the rental agent, a Brit said “do you want to rent in black, white or gray.” I had no clue what he was talking about. He then explained you can have a white rental contract (completely legal, obliging the owner to pay taxes), a gray contract (where one would pay half legally and half under the table), so the owner pays less taxes, or a black contract (where one would pay completely under the table), and the owner would not pay taxes on the income. I was aghast.

Over the years I have spent in Italy, I have become used to it. Doctors, dentists, orthodontists, hair-dressers and mechanics often offer you a 20-percent discount if you don’t require a receipt and can pay in cash, or they simply accept cash only.

I would say that, as a businessman and a politician, Berlusconi is brilliant at making the gray areas work for him. While he was still just an entrepreneur, he had close political allies, in particular, Socialist leader and former Prime Minister Bettino Craxi. Italians often recall April 1993 when Craxi, under investigation for corruption left the Hotel Raphael in Rome. An angry crowd outside chanted “thief”, “thief” and threw lira coins at him. In 1994, Craxi fled to Tunisia to avoid trial. He was sentenced in absentia to 27 years in prison for corruption and died in Tunisia in 2000.

Although Berlusconi was friends with Italian politicians of the past, he has a different style. He is media savvy, a natural showman who knows how to appeal directly to the Italian people through the TV. He became famous for his ‘barzellette’, funny little stories and jokes that are usually sexist or racist. He is not the least bit self-conscious about his efforts to make himself physically more attractive. He has never denied his hair transplants, eye-tucks or facelifts; on the contrary, he openly jokes about his periodic ‘maintenance work’. It is all part of being a showman.

Every time I was near Berlusconi to door-step him or during a press conference, I was astounded at how he appears close up. His skin is pulled tight, he always wears thick layers of makeup, and his dyed, transplanted hair appears glued to his head. But I am also impressed by his incredible personality, his intense optimism, and his ability to go beyond the journalists in front of him and speak directly to the cameras, directly to the Italian people. He keeps it simple and convincing, and it works. He always seems convinced that he is right and that he will find a way to achieve his goals. And he usually does, with the exception of this week.

As a television journalist covering Berlusconi, I must say there was never a dull moment. Over the years we got used to covering Berlusconi’s gaffes. He irritated Queen Elizabeth II by yelling out “Mr. Obama” during a formal photo opportunity at Buckingham Palace. Another time he left German Chancellor Angela Merkel standing on a red carpet by the Rhine river waiting for him, TV cameras rolling, while he chatted on his cell phone.  He purposely got caught by photographers making the horns during a ‘family photo’, behind the head of the Spanish Foreign Minister after a 2002 Summit meeting in Caceres, Spain. At an event APTN covered in Rome with a group of young people me imitated a handicapped person who can’t walk properly and told a bald young man he should get a hair transplant.

He gave us food for our reports, and food to eat. At events that the Berlusconi government organized, the press corps was always given a fabulous spread. I remember covering the 2009 G8 summit in L’Aquila where the press were virtual prisoners in a stadium-size press area, where on one side a giant tent was set up where waiters served marvelous meals filled with all sorts of traditional delicacies and plenty of Italian wines. Berlusconi knew that keeping reporters, cameramen and photographers well fed and with plenty of booze could be useful.

Berlusconi’s gaffe-prone, jokster style worked well with US President George W. Bush and the two men clearly had a good rapport. Berlusconi was also popular with the Bush administration because he moved the traditional Italian Foreign Policy away from being pro-Europe and pro-Arab to being pro-American and pro-Israel. The US also appreciated the considerable contribution in terms of troops that Italy gave to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

To be continued.

Part II – Berlusconi’s Babe’s

6 thoughts on “Silvio Berlusconi and Me – Part I”

  1. Interesting look at the less public side or perhaps the inside view of Silvio. I can imaine him being buddies with W, only it sounds as if SB is smarter. SIlvio will be missed by cartonists and comics as is W.

    1. Cartoonists and comics will definitely miss Silvio, and I am afraid they may start cutting back journalists in Rome without Berlusconi around to cover. Let’s hope not.

  2. Hi,
    I am very curious about your blog and twitter. It seems lovely. I found you on the List of Pope’s following.
    I like your  idea of mozzarella mamma, I should have become one of them but I couldn’t . My three boys have turned into nasty teenagers and not nice mozzarellas!!  I will follow your nice blog.

    I have one “obiezione” for you : the Berlusconi era and women as sex objects connection:. c’mon…the very vast majority of such women CHOOSE and LIKE and  WANT to be sex objects. Berlusconi is just passing by… And has been an easy target. They sure can find another prey …moreover it happens in almost every corner of the world. Unfortunately our great examples of women are not so popular:  Gianna Beretta Molla just to mention one wonderful kind of mamma.


    1. Trisha Thomas

      Cinzia — thank you for your comment. For blog readers who don’t know her, Gianna Berretta Molla is an Italian woman who is the extreme opposite of the shallow show-girls I wrote about in my post on Berlusconi. Gianna Berretta Molla was an Italian Pediatrician who refused an abortion and a hysterectomy when she was pregnant with her fourth child even though she knew that by doing so she risked death. Gianna Beretta Molla gave birth by c-section to a little girl but then died 7 days later of peritonitis. Gianna Beretta Molla was made a saint in a ceremony in St. Peter’s Square in 2004. Her husband and daughter were present at the ceremony.

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