Less than a month before he must submit to the will of the court and accept his punishment for the crime of fraud, and hours before a committee was to decide whether or not to eject him from the Senate – the thumbs went down – Silvio Berlusconi gave his nation yet another extraordinary television performance this week. His appearance was distressing: eyes like currants, lips thin and pale, not even the shadow of his old roguish smile. And the content was laughable, pathetic and outrageous in equal parts.
The media, both Italian and foreign, have always had an ambivalent attitude to this man. On the one hand we are greatly in his debt: he has kept more reporters in gainful employment and sold more newspapers, magazines and books than the rest of the Italian political world put together. On the other, we cannot resist writing his political obituary, over and over again. We want to draw a line under Berlusconi because it is always tempting for the journalist to play the historian, and the passing of Berlusconi from the stage will certainly be the end of an era.
It is embarrassing how many times we have written finis to his career. The most memorable for me was The Independent front page in April 2006 with the headline, “End of the Road for the Godfather”, neatly conflating Berlusconi’s defeat in the general election with the simultaneous capture of the Corleone mafia boss Bernardo Provenzano.
Provenzano disappeared into jail, but the other godfather bounced back in no time. In fact his whole political career has been one long rebound, one improbable leap from one burning building after another. His decision to throw himself into politics, exactly 20 years ago, was an apparently reckless attempt to save himself from the jaws of the prosecutors who had just chewed up his Socialist Party patron Bettino Craxi. To thwart them he created Forza Italia, Europe’s first ever-corporate political party, staffed and managed by his empire’s employees, and he came from nowhere to win the general election – adding a new item to the list of bad political ideas invented in Italy (cf Fascism).
But now, as he faces a ban on public office as well as ejection from parliament, the end is surely drawing nigh. Listening to Berlusconi’s latest performance, two questions arise: can he really believe what he says with such intensity – that he is innocent, completely innocent, that the justice system has been hijacked by communists bent on destroying him for ideological reasons? And who does he suppose he is talking to?
The impact of his address was as great as ever, with all the newspapers, both hostile and friendly, clearing the front pages for it and several linking to the full 17-minute speech. But this time around Berlusconi had no new ideas to offer, other than proposing himself as a sort of elderly Che Guevara of the right. As the brutal reality of his definitive conviction for fraud, and the proper and correct refusal of President Napolitano to give him a pardon, sink in, Berlusconi understands how few weapons he has left: he did not even threaten to pull out of the coalition government, knowing it would do no good if he did. And he must know that his support is ebbing away; his core supporters beginning grudgingly to acknowledge his day is done. As a result he appears more and more like a man staring into a mirror and talking to himself, with the endless self-justification of the deluded.
The centre-left Democratic Party’s website compared him to Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, playing a star of the silent movies adrift in the world of talkies. But the tragedy for Italy is that this analogy is dead wrong. So overweening has been Berlusconi’s domination for the past two decades, so pervasive the stultification over which he has presided, that the country he professes so mawkishly to love is finding it immensely difficult to move on. Berlusconi refuses to contemplate handing over to a successor, either his daughter Marina or anyone else. And Italy stays trapped in the sterile era which will forever bear his blighted name.
Syria casts a golden light on Kissinger
Say what you like about Henry Kissinger, but he certainly saw the Big Picture – and apparently still sees it – in a way that makes our present-day rulers look very myopic. That’s why, despite everything (Cambodia, Chile…), it is good news that he is having his say on Syria, and that the Obama administration is apparently listening. John McCain this week went on to the comment pages of Pravda to take childishly easy pot-shots at Vladimir Putin. One can imagine Mr Kissinger turning to him with those cowled eyes and intoning, with Ecclesiastes, “There is a time to break down and a time to build up.”
There is no way out of the Syrian quagmire except the path of peace, which is unthinkable without the Russians. The involvement of Iran might bring the prospect of real negotiations from the unpromising to the conceivable. But modern US diploDanimacy, for understandable historical reasons, finds it appallingly hard to get to first base with either of the two countries whose cooperation is essential if there is to be any progress at all. Whoever thought we would look back on the Nixon era as a (very relatively) Golden Age?