As American businessman Donald Trump steals the US election campaign show, dominating the press coverage and moving to the top of the polls among Republicans in the primary, many American intellectuals are asking how this buffoon can be so successful.
Frank Bruni, New York Times op-ed writer and former correspondent in Rome, recently wrote a piece titled “The Dolce Donald Trump” pointing out the similarities between Trump and long time Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Bruni is so good, I am going to quote a chunk:
“Aren’t they essentially the same man? The same myth? They have the same obsession with their wealth. Same need to crow about it. Same belief that it’s the irrefutable measure of their genius. Same come-on to countrymen: If I enriched myself, I can enrich you. They’re priapic twins, identical in their insistence on being seen as paragons of irresistible lust. If hideously sexist utterances ensue, so be it. Loins before decency. Pheromones over good sense. And the vanity. Oh, the vanity….”
“Those Italians whose art we bow down before and whose food we fetishize… repeatedly elected him, so that he could actually do what Trump is still merely auditioning to do: use his country as a gaudy throne and an adoring mirror as he ran it into the ground….
“Trumpusconi is a study in the peril and pitfalls of unchecked testosterone and tumescent avarice. It’s a commentary on wealth in the Western world: how ardently certain blowhards pursue it, how much the rest of us forgive in those who attain it, how thoroughly we equate money and accomplishment.
It’s a comedy. It’s a tragedy.”
Well if anyone might be wondering what kind of tragedy Bruni might be talking about, all you have to do is read Michael Day’s excellent new book “Being Berlusconi: The Rise & Fall From Cosa Nostra to Bunga Bunga.”
Michael Day has been Italy correspondent for “The Independent” for the last six years. During this time he has seen Berlusconi up close and witnessed the damage he wreaked on the country. For those who don’t remember, Silvio Berlusconi served as Italian Prime Minister three times between 1994 and 2011, while owning three private TV channels and dominating the three public ones. He has also long been one of Italy’s richest men.
In “Being Berlusconi” Day goes beyond his years in Italy and reaches back to the beginning of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s career taking the reader through all the illegal and legal, brilliant and idiotic twists and turns made by one man to become the richest, most powerful man in Italy for two decades.
Day’s prologue describes covering Berlusconi at an award ceremony on the top of Milan’s Duomo (see photo above) and introduces the reader to Day’s trenchant style, “Pretty young stewards armed with clipboards and insect repellent welcomed politicians, journalists and hoary TV celebrities, some accompanied by young female companions tottering in six-inch heels, as they stepped onto the roof of the Cathedral. The sun sank and the eastern sky turned mauve, but the mercury didn’t budge from the 86-degree mark. Swarms of mosquitos danced around sweating guests, whose eyes darted around anxiously—and in vain—for evidence of a bar.”
Day goes on to describe how Berlusconi – who loves the sound of his own voice– launched into a lengthy speech singing his own praises and attacking Italy’s judges.
“Sitting at the far end of the ceremony with other journalists, I felt my shirt stick to my back in a big wet patch as I turned to a reporter from “La Repubblica” and asked how long she thought the speech would last.”
“Forever,” she scowled.
Both reading the book and living through it, it seemed like Berlusconi’s grip on Italy was going to last forever.
I met with Michael Day at the Foreign Correspondents’ Association in Rome today to talk to him about writing the book. I asked him what impression Berlusconi made on him when he saw him in person. “He was just like I expected,” Day replied, “Short and orange.” Berlusconi is 5 feet tall and constantly covered in a orangey color face make-up presumably to make him look young and tan.
In “Being Berlusconi” Day takes the reader carefully and meticulously through Berlusconi’s professional life detailing how he moved from cruise-ship crooner, vacuum cleaner salesman, and real-estate mogul to TV tycoon and finally to Prime Minister with the help of a few corrupt cronies who paid off judges and cozied up to the Mafia, and sleazy politicians who filled their pockets and bent the laws to help their friend Silvio.
Day uses his poisoned pen with glee, displaying a verbal virtuosity in his approach to anyone in Italian politics over the past 30 years and just about anyone else who brushed up with Berlusconi. Day starts with Berlusconi who gets summed up more or less as the “devil” in the first pages of the book, he moves on to “medieval moralists at the Vatican”, “officials in Brussels” choking on their “long, Michelin-starred lunches,” “pompous bureaucrats at RAI, Italy’s state broadcaster, Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, a“corrupt politician” and a “power hungry pragmatist and bully”, Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi “a mumbling economics professor”, “Britain’s freeloading first couple Tony and Cherie Blair” and Mother Teresa “not the saint she would have us believe.” Day also runs down a list of “The mogul’s “important friends” – Bush (dunce), Clinton (liar), Putin (tyrant) and Chirac (crook)…”. Ouch.
But Day’s sometimes snarky comments are often bulls-eyes.
Here is Day’s take on Berlusconi’s appointment of Mara Carfagna to Minister for Equal Opportunity “…the quintessential female appointment in Berlusconi’s third government. This strikingly attractive brunette from Naples had been a topless model and a dancer on one of Berlusconi’s tacky TV shows; she was a shoo-in for Equal Opportunities Minister.”
I asked Day about his take-no-prisoners style as he tossed back a caffe’ macchiato. He said that he developed that style working for “The Independent” which “allows me to write as I like, to be fairly opinionated. Its readership is quite well-informed and I think it expects me to tell things as they are. I don’t have an agenda. But I think you have to take a position, and being completely even-handed in extreme situations isn’t really appropriate, not when things are completely skewed.”
Despite his sometimes scathing criticism of what happens in the bel paese, Day does not hide his passion for Italy, “This country is mad, but it is beautiful. I love Italy and it has loads and loads of things going for it, but I don’t think I would be doing Italy or anyone a favor by downplaying any of the things I criticize.”
There are a few people who escape Day’s withering prose – Ilda Boccassini, the Milan Prosecutor who has tackled the powerful ‘Ndrangheta Mafia in Northern Italy, and who went after Berlusconi for the illegal behavior surrounding his bunga bunga parties which eventually led to his trial for paying for sex with an underage prostitute and using his power to cover it up. Day describes Boccassini as “the famously dogged Neapolitan magistrate…whose unrelenting efforts had ensured that Cosa Nostra killers…were brought to justice.” He describes her physically as “small and olive skinned, with fiery red hair and a temper to match…” (See my blog post on her “The Italian Tiger Mamma”)
Berlusconi’s second wife Veronica Lario also gets a good rap from Day. Throughout the book she seems like one of the only honest, level-headed people around, and the only one who managed to see through the manipulative charms of her husband and get the best of him. (See my blog post on her “Veronica’s Revenge.”)
It would be impossible to do a book about Berlusconi without diving into the sludge that was his sordid sexual habits. Day gives due attention to the salacious details of Berlusconi’s sex life as the billioniare politician descended into an abyss of squalid behavior with the so-called “bunga bunga” parties with dozens of young girls performing sexual acts for Berlusconi and his cronies. (I have reported on this myself in numerous stories for AP and on blog posts: Berlusconi’s Babes – Part II , Walk on Cadavers and Sell Your Mother, The End of Italy’s Bunga Bunga Era, Berlusconi gets a 7 year Sentence”)
Day takes a stab at journalists too who gleefully covered what became known as the “Bunga Bunga” trial: “for reporters, it was like eating a whole box of chocolates at once, with sleaze, prostitution and national security concerns.” He’s right. It was a chocolate high.
Despite his withering descriptions, Day has been effective in frequently pointing out Berlusconi’s brilliance, noting in the first pages, “It’s a testament to Berlusconi genius as a businessman and politician—and key to his popular and vicarious appeal—that he started with very little and rose to become Italy’s richest man and dominate its politics for two decades”
Throughout the book Day describes Berlusconi’s sense of loyalty to everyone from his first wife to his corrupt cronies. Day also explores in some detail Berlusconi’s talent for understanding the average Italian. As a young businessman Berlusconi understood that TV viewers didn’t want education and culture on TV, they wanted lowbrow fare. This seemingly obvious conclusion made Silvio Berlusconi a rich man. Berlusconi also understood that his womanizing could appeal to many Italian men. According to Day, ““Berlusconi’s womanizing and ostentatious wealth gave many middle-aged Italians a vicarious thrill.”
Reading “Being Berlusconi,” someone who has not spent time in Italy might pause and think “no, it is not possible,” “how could it be so,” “Day is exaggerating.” And yet as a fellow journalist who has covered Berlusconi for decades I can say, “it is true, I was there too.” And at AP television we have a lot of video in our archive of Silvio Berlusconi doing many of the things described so comprehensively in “Being Berlusconi.” There are the absurd gaffes – calling President Barack Obama “sun-tanned”, telling German MP Martin Sculz he would make a good Nazi prison camp guard, and hanging out with Muammar Gaddafi, not to mention his physical appearance and transformations – the face-lifts, the hair transplants and hair piece, and the odd orangey face make-up.
These days life is a bit rough for Berlusconi. His Forza Italia party is crumbling to pieces, he is banned from public office, he has been convicted of tax fraud, and even had to serve time doing community service with alzheimer’s patients. His spends his free time with his new companion, the 30-year-old Francesca Pascale and her fluffy, white poodle Dudu. But the man continues to make news. Word got out last week that speaking at a dinner with some Forza Italia party members Berlusconi said that his friend Vladimir Putin had offered him Russian citizenship and a job as Minister of the Economy. I ignored the comment when it came up in the papers. Next thing I knew my London editors wanted a story on it.
Like Donald Trump, Berlusconi comments continue to draw media attention even when they do not merit it.
I asked Day if he thought the comparison to Donald Trump is apt. Day argued that “Berlusconi has a hell of a lot more ability. Trump its just crass and crude. Trump also really believes in right wing politics, he is an ideologue. But although Berlusconi has a kind of innate political ability — to connect with people –he was never an ideologue. He would have joined the communist party if it could have helped save his business and keep him out of jail.”
And then Day couldn’t resist one of his zingers- “and at least the dead animal on Berlusconi’s head is glued down; with Trump you are not sure if it is going to jump off and bite you.”