It Ain’t Over ‘Til the Tan Man Sings
Italy's most outspoken journalist on the secret to Silvio Berlusconi's continued survival -- and why it may be coming to an end soon.
On Oct. 14, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi narrowly survived a no-confidence vote in parliament amid a barrage of criminal cases, sex scandals, and embarrassing taped conversations, not to mention Italy’s worst financial crisis in decades. The news prompted many around the world to ask: Just what will it take for Berlusconi to lose his job?
To shed some light on this topic, Foreign Policy spoke with Beppe Severgnini, one of Italy’s best-known journalists, a veteran Silvio-watcher, and author of the new book Mamma Mia: Berlusconi’s Italy Explained for Posterity and Friends Abroad. We discussed the prime minister’s control over the media, the incompetence of his enemies, and whether Italian men are actually envious of their leader’s bunga-bunga lifestyle.
Foreign Policy: So let’s start with the basic premise of your book. How is it that Silvio Berlusconi has managed to survive half a dozen scandals, any one of which would have ended the career of most democratic leaders?
Beppe Severgnini: Well, there are 10 reasons in my book. At this moment, you can say a few of these reasons are more important than others. Even now, he continues to introduce himself as an outsider and a non-politician, though he’s certainly one of the most experienced politicians in Europe — as shrewd as you can get. He can maneuver in Parliament and get just enough votes — and the way he actually gets those votes is by offering government posts, as he did last week.
Number two, the alternative is still pretty weak. The opposition is growing, but a lot of people still don’t see an alternative. Personally, I think any alternative is better. You and I could form a government, and I think we’d do well compared to what is happening now.
Third, Italy is a very tribal culture. There is a very tribalistic attitude toward politics. There are people who would vote for the devil if it would keep the other side out.
But all of these are kind of thinning out now, and definitely Berlusconi is on his way out. It’s a matter of weeks or months.
FP: So what was the turning point? When did his tricks stop working?
BS: I think it’s a combination of scandals that are literally beyond imagination. It probably started in 2009 when he attended the birthday party of a girl who was turning 18, which means he was seeing her before she was of age. And then his wife left him and wrote a very vitriolic letter in the newspapers saying, "My husband is sick and is offering virgins to the Minotaur," or whatever. So this opened up a Pandora’s box of scandals that have lasted for two years.
He might have survived that too, if not for this massive economic crisis. Italy’s got a huge public debt: 120 percent of GDP. The costs of servicing that debt are going up. So it’s a combination of bad economic data and this barrage of scandals that probably did it for him.
Don’t forget, youth unemployment in Italy is 28.5 percent, which is the highest in Europe after Greece. Are you happy with a government that keeps your kids out of work? During a rare public meeting not long ago, Mr. Berlusconi told a girl who had asked him what she should do about her future, "You’re pretty. You should marry a rich husband."
FP: I’m curious what you thought of the argument in a recent article in the New Yorker, which made the case that Berlusconi’s attitude toward women — turning models and dental hygienists into parliamentarians because of their looks and all of that — is actually normal for Italian men, which accounts for much of his appeal.
BS: I think that’s a little unfair. Of course, Berlusconi embodies many things that are lurking behind the national psychology. But to say it’s typically Italian, no. Yes, if you tell me that most Italians are flirtatious when they see a pretty woman, even when they shouldn’t be; yes, it’s absolutely true.
But I don’t know any Italian man who has partied with 25 women a third of his age. A, because it’s too tiring, and B, because it’s too expensive.
FP: One of my favorite chapters of the book is what you call, "the Zelig Factor," Berlusconi’s ability to transform the way he acts and presents himself depending on whom he’s talking to — conservative with Bush, a macho man with Putin, a man of God with the pope, etc. How does he get away with this? Don’t people think he’s a hypocrite?
BS: No, they think he’s a great actor. Don’t forget that the man knows about television.
He knows nothing about the Internet and social networks. He’s completely clueless. He was once sitting next to Mubarak at a press conference (By the way, all his friends in North Africa are gone: Qaddafi, Mubarak, Ben Ali. If I were Putin, his fourth-best friend, I’d be pretty nervous.) But anyway, he was sitting next to Mubarak and said, "Now we can find out anything about anyone. We just have to look it up on ‘Gogol.’" It took the audience a minute to realize he was talking about Google. I quipped that we have the only prime minister who gets his information from Russian novelists.
So he knows nothing about the Internet, but he’s really a pro at daytime television. So in terms of appealing to the lower-middle class on TV, he’s the master of the universe. He knows what to say, how to dress, how to put on makeup, everything. He’s a master salesman.
Zelig, the character in Woody Allen’s film, transforms himself so he will be accepted. That’s key to understanding Berlusconi. He wants to be loved, but also to sell something to his brothers. He’s a very strange combination of a great salesman and a very insecure man who needs to be appreciated.
FP: What’s it like for you, as a journalist who’s obviously very critical of the government, working in a country where the prime minister has such overwhelming control over the mass media?
BS: I’m very lucky. I work for Corriere Della Sera, which is the largest newspaper, and I can say whatever I want. I write for the Economist and the FT, and I can write whatever I want. On television, I appeared on Sky Italia for many years, and I could say whatever I wanted.
But I’m in my 50s. I’m not your average 20-something journalist. It’s not so easy for me to say, "Well, who cares?" Many of my colleagues do care, and they know they won’t have any access to public television because he controls it. They won’t have any access to private television because he owns it. Of course, there are satellite networks and newspapers that don’t belong to him, but still you’re talking about a good half of the media being completely enslaved to him.
The sad thing is that many of my colleagues think it’s only fair that if you have right-wing views you should work for his papers. I think this is shocking. There are lots of right-wing journalists in the U.S., but I don’t think they’d be happy working for a newspaper owned by the politician they support. I think it’s embarrassing. But maybe I’m naive.
FP: You talk a lot about the incompetence of the Italian left. How much do you think is their fault and how much do you think is just how difficult Berlusconi has made it for anyone to run against him?
BS: It’s about two-thirds their fault and one-third objective difficulties. They are divided, which is unexcusable. They don’t have a program. They don’t have a leader. And we simply don’t know who’s going to be Mr. Berlusconi’s opponent and what they plan to do if they win. This is disgraceful.
I think Berlusconi is at his weakest now, and they should be a shoo-in.
FP: So even if Berlusconi’s out of political power, he has managed to have a profound effect on Italian politics, culture, and media. How long do you think this impact will be felt?
BS: We’ll go through a couple of difficult years, I think. Italy, in terms of media, and loyalty, and fair play is wounded. But never forget that Italy is the country of opera. I don’t like Mr. Berlusconi’s arias, but he’s the tenor. In an opera, the audience cheers for the tenor until the very moment they boo him offstage.