Berlusconi the gentleman?

Silvio Berlusconi’s obvious gift for scandal is on display in a number of the cables obtained by WikiLeaks. But other dispatches highlight the wily political skill that has allowed the Italian prime minister to escape the trouble he repeatedly causes for himself. Indeed, it’s the latter that lends some measure of pathos to the former. ...

By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
560332_101217_Berlusconi2.jpg
560332_101217_Berlusconi2.jpg
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi listens as he takes part in the presentation of the new book of journalist Bruno Vespa (not pictured) on December 14, 2010 in Rome. Berlusconi on Tuesday survived earlier in the day a crucial no-confidence vote in parliament by three votes, as violent clashes broke out in the streets of Rome in protest against his rule. AFP PHOTO / TIZIANA FABI (Photo credit should read TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)

Silvio Berlusconi's obvious gift for scandal is on display in a number of the cables obtained by WikiLeaks. But other dispatches highlight the wily political skill that has allowed the Italian prime minister to escape the trouble he repeatedly causes for himself. Indeed, it's the latter that lends some measure of pathos to the former. Berlusconi isn't a simple clown; he's a shrewd man with outsize flaws.

From U.S. ambassador David Thorne's report on his meeting with Berlusconi (and his "second in command," Gianna Letta) in January 2010, it's clear that the prime minister takes pride in having cultivated a keen and sympathetic eye for his political competition:

Silvio Berlusconi’s obvious gift for scandal is on display in a number of the cables obtained by WikiLeaks. But other dispatches highlight the wily political skill that has allowed the Italian prime minister to escape the trouble he repeatedly causes for himself. Indeed, it’s the latter that lends some measure of pathos to the former. Berlusconi isn’t a simple clown; he’s a shrewd man with outsize flaws.

From U.S. ambassador David Thorne’s report on his meeting with Berlusconi (and his “second in command,” Gianna Letta) in January 2010, it’s clear that the prime minister takes pride in having cultivated a keen and sympathetic eye for his political competition:

Berlusconi and Letta displayed a great deal of respect for opposition leaders. Berlusconi praised the Democratic Party Leader, Pier Luigi Bersani as a “straight shooter” who was fair with a top rate intellect. Separately Letta was also complimentary about former Prime Minister (and archrival) Massimo D’Alema who he credited with showing courage and integrity during the Balkans crisis and taking some very tough decisions. Letta noted that D’Alema’s prickliness and “smartest guy in the room” demeanor made dealing with him a chore, but acknowledged his judgment and political effectiveness, which was why Berlusconi backed him for the EU Foreign Minister position despite their differences. Letta told the Ambassador that he did not have a clear judgment on how DiPietro will play in domestic politics and looked forward to future conversations.

One can’t help but be struck by the measured and generous — even gentlemanly! — judgments. This is hardly the thin-skinned, scorched-earth Berlusconi who last week seemed to take his country hostage, declaring that Italy’s economy would collapse entirely if he lost a confidence vote in parliament. (He won that vote on Tuesday.)

But Berlusconi’s private willingness to elevate his opponents is itself marked by an artful omission. As James Walston reported for FP, Berlusconi’s toughest long-term challenge is likely to come from Nichi Vendola, a popular regional governor. Rather than build him up, or tear him down, the prime minister chooses not to mention him at all to the U.S. ambassador. That mirrors Berlusconi’s tactics on the campaign trail, where he only mentioned the openly-gay Vendola allusively and insultingly: When asked about his most recent sex scandals, Berlusconi remarked that it was “better to be passionate about young women than to be gay.”

Still, the cable is a reminder that Berlusconi can act dignified if he wants — it’s just that he feels no shame in using his shrewdness in the service of mindless populism rather than sober statesmanship. Further proof that Berlusconi’s problems aren’t intellectual: They’re moral.

Cameron Abadi is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @CameronAbadi

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