Inspiring role models for disgraced leaders

As his premiership winds down, Silvio Berlusconi is taking wisdom from a surprising source:  “I am tired of not being able to impose my will and not being able to push the policy that I would like. I am more powerful as a free citizen than as prime minister. I was reading a book on ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images
FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images
FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images

As his premiership winds down, Silvio Berlusconi is taking wisdom from a surprising source

“I am tired of not being able to impose my will and not being able to push the policy that I would like. I am more powerful as a free citizen than as prime minister. I was reading a book on the letters between Mussolini and (his mistress) Claretta and he tells her at a certain point ‘You don’t understand that I don’t count at all, all I can do is hand out favors.’ I felt like I ended up in the same situation.”

As I point out the context of a fascist dictatorship, he interrupts: “Of course, I am not a dictator, even if you (in the press) have written that I am for years. What I mean is that the founding fathers of Italy, precisely out of fear that history would repeat itself, went too far in weakening the executive role. I ask you: can you be the head of the government if you can’t make the minister of the economy carry out the economic policy that you believe in?”

As his premiership winds down, Silvio Berlusconi is taking wisdom from a surprising source

“I am tired of not being able to impose my will and not being able to push the policy that I would like. I am more powerful as a free citizen than as prime minister. I was reading a book on the letters between Mussolini and (his mistress) Claretta and he tells her at a certain point ‘You don’t understand that I don’t count at all, all I can do is hand out favors.’ I felt like I ended up in the same situation.”

As I point out the context of a fascist dictatorship, he interrupts: “Of course, I am not a dictator, even if you (in the press) have written that I am for years. What I mean is that the founding fathers of Italy, precisely out of fear that history would repeat itself, went too far in weakening the executive role. I ask you: can you be the head of the government if you can’t make the minister of the economy carry out the economic policy that you believe in?”

While there’s some residual fondness for Il Duce on the Italian right and his granddaughter serves in parliament — this being Italy, she’s also a former Playboy model — he’s perhaps not the best historical figure to be reading about as you contemplate the end of your political career. We thought we might suggest a few more appropriate role models for the prime minister to consider:

Winston Churchill: Despite his leadership during World War II, Churchill’s Conservatives  were roundly defeated in the 1945 election by the Labour Party, which came into office promising significant reforms such as the creation of a National Health Service — an idea for which Churchill expressed contempt. He would serve again as PM from 1951 to 1955, though hampered by poor health, and is, of course, today remembered as one of the most important leaders of the 20th century.

Harry Truman: Truman left office with an approval rating of 32 percent — a record not broken until George W. Bush in 2009 — mired by criticism of his policies on "Korea, Communism and Corruption." But today, Truman’s handling of foreign policy — particularly the Marshall Plan and the Containment model for confronting the Soviet Union — are cited as models by both parties. No wonder Bush likes to compare himself, perhaps optimistically, to "Give ’em Hell Harry".

(Other U.S. presidents who were much maligned during their time but have been, to varying extents, redeemed by history include John Adams, Ulysses S. Grant, Lyndon Johnson, and George H.W. Bush. According to Michele Bachmann, that list should also include James Garfield and Calvin Coolidge.)

Deng Xiaoping: At the time he stepped down, Deng was facing both backlash from anti-reform Communist hardliners and, deservedly, international condemnation for the crushing of the Tiananmen Square protests. But today he is remembered primarily as the father of China’s embrace of market capitalism,  both preserving Communist Party rule and putting China on the path to global preeminence.

Mikhael Gorbachev: When the man who presided over the dismantling of the Soviet Union — what his eventual successor Vladimir Putin termed "the greatest political catastrophe" of the 20th century — attempted a return to the Russian presidency in 1996, he came in a dismal 7th place with .5 percent of the vote. As Anne Applebaum notes, his reputation in Russia hasn’t really recovered, but internationally he’s hailed as a brave reformer and elder statesman. 

  ***

Will Berlusconi ever reach the stature of these figures? Well none of them were ever caught partying with multiple underage girls or referred to the nation that elected them as a "shitty" country, so probably not. But history can do funny things, and it’s certainly possible that Italian voters will soon tire of EU-mandated technocracy and look back fondly on the leader who at least kept things entertaining for them. He’s certainly guaranteed to have a more enjoyable retirement than his old friend Qaddafi.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.