A FRIEND in the press telephoned Giulio Andreotti on Tuesday to break the news that the elder statesman was to be accused by Palermo magistrates of belonging to the Sicilian Mafia. 'Oh yes?' inquired the feline voice at the end of a crackly Roman telephone line. 'Don't you think it might be better just at the moment if we were to finish watching the game?' Italy, after all, were just fighting back to a 2-1 victory over Nigeria in the World Cup, and one does not rise to be prime minister of the Italian Republic seven times without possessing a due sense of proportion.
Even by the dramatic standards of Roman politics, the rise and fall of Giulio Andreotti stands up to the most telling comparisons. There is Caesar slain by Brutus, of course, but Andreotti would never have permitted himself to trust any individual so closely, and would certainly have detected a conspiracy in the making. There is Cola di Rienzo torn to pieces by a medieval mob on the slopes of the Campidoglio, but Andreotti was always careful to provide as much bread and as many circuses as his constituents required to keep their loyalty.
No, the fall of Andreotti is more like the snuffing out of a great cardinal in the reign of some baroque pope, the sudden exclusion from power and favour of one who has cultivated a web of patronage and conducted a private policy whose ends are divined only by himself. Now a senator, for decades he was probably the most influential man in Italy.
Andreotti moved within the cloistered world of Christian Democratic politics and had the ear of the most venerable figures in the Vatican. He treated with kings and presidents. He struck deals with Arab dictators. He took tea at the White House and aperitifs at the Elysee. When absent from office he was conspicuous by his presence in parliament. He professed a great respect for the niceties of the 1947 Italian constitution, whose workings he knew as surely as he had once mastered his catechism.
Andreotti, now 75, took his first post in government in the late Forties and remained at the centre of power until 1993, as Under-Secretary, Foreign Minister and Premier, among other posts. The modern school of biography will be disappointed by him, for his private life has always remained beyond reproach. His wife, Livia, played a discreet and traditional role, bringing up their two sons and two daughters. His only known vice is a penchant for late-night cards.
Italian prime ministers died, or were hounded from office, or were indicted for scandalous doings, or were assassinated. Andreotti never seemed to suffer a day's illness, shrugged off the vilest allegations and remained serene in the face of every threat.
Then, last year, the old system collapsed under the onslaught of a group of magistrates in Milan who, by political coincidence and individual drive, found themselves able to stage a series of trials for corruption. From the Alps to Sicily, the reforming virus spread through Italy's highly politicised judiciary. Mayors, members of parliament and businessmen ended up in court. Some hired expensive lawyers and mounted prolonged defences. Others made a deal with the prosecution. A few committed suicide.
Last spring, magistrates in Palermo decided to take on the shadowy figures whom they believed had granted protection to the Mafia for its drug and extortion rackets since the Americans came ashore in 1943. They formally accused Andreotti of being its political godfather in Rome. Over his protests, the Senate removed his immunity from prosecution. Now the prosecutors are said to have strengthened their accusation to one of membership in 'the honoured society' itself.
So can it be that Giulio Andreotti, the confidant of pontiffs and the most permanent fixture in Italian democracy for more than 40 years, was in the Mafia all the time? Certainly not. The fact is that in all the tens of thousands of words contained in the numerous imposing documents so far presented by the Palermo magistrates there cannot be found one word of reliable first- hand testimony proving the charge. By the standards of a British or American courtroom, much would be inadmissible as hearsay. The prosecution attempts to place Andreotti at secret meetings in beachfront villas, exchanging kisses with unshaven gangsters or conspiring to do away with inconvenient policemen and over-zealous judges. But almost all of the case rests upon the testimony of informers. Some of them, such as the famous Tommaso Buscetta, have proven their reliability. Others remain to be tested. 'A strange little chorus,' Andreotti has mused, 'not even singing in tune.'
Truth is a word which contains an implication of the absolute that is almost entirely absent from the Italian political vocabulary. And Sicily, it will be remembered, was ruled by Normans, Arabs, Goths and successive antiquated monarchies whose traditions bequeathed its inhabitants a mentality that is intricate even to the average Italian. In its secrecy, its rituals, its code of silence and its implacable retribution, the Mafia is the most refined expression of a tortured moral system. It is as much part of the mystery of Sicilian identity as is the Roman Catholic Church, and equally resistant to dry legal proof.
Thus it is with the claim that Andreotti was a mafioso. For the magistrates, obtaining a conviction is a test of principle. But, as Mussolini once observed of governing Italy, it is not so much impossible as pointless. The Mafia did not need a 'Don Giulio' in its ranks and the statesman himself would not have considered membership an advantage.
It was all rather more subtle than that. Andreotti depended for his party conference votes within the Christian Democrats party upon his corrente, or faction. Much of its support was drawn from western Sicily, where a silver-haired and silky-tongued patriarch named Salvatore 'Salvo' Lima presided over a political machine that would not have disgraced the Chicago of 1929. His allies were two other feudal individuals, Nino and Ignazio Salvo, who collected taxes on behalf of the Italian government.
In southern Italy and Sicily, the exercise of power has traditionally involved an exchange of favours. Authority in those regions has alternated between the political class and the underworld clans such as the Mafia in Palermo and the Camorra in Naples. Lima and the Salvos, with their Roman patron Andreotti, were therefore neither opposed to the Mafia nor members of it. They simply sought to function in equilibrium with it, seeking to regulate a balance of power. The Mafia wanted contracts, protection and jobs for its supporters. It guaranteed votes in exchange and paid percentages to its friends.
Andreotti and his lawyers say he knew nothing of this. Andreotti, however, has chosen a felicitous Latin expression to describe the arrangement. There may have been, he conceded, a quietus vivere. Live and let live. Unfortunately, the Mafia does not always reciprocate such sentiments and, as a result, few of the people who might shed light on the past are available to do so. One of the Salvos died of cancer. The other was murdered. Lima was shot dead outside his villa in 1992. The two best-informed magistrates in Sicily, Giovanni Falcone and his colleague Paolo Borsellino, were assassinated in car bomb attacks last year. The delicate balance maintained for four profitable decades had been overturned.
It is curious how much of Andreotti's career can be written through other people's obituaries. There was his friend Aldo Moro, murdered by the Red Brigade in circumstances that still seem mysterious. There was the crooked Sicilian financier Michele Sindona, once hailed by Andreotti as 'the saviour of the lira', who choked to death through poison placed, some say by his own hand, in the morning coffee served to him inside a maximum security prison. There was Roberto Calvi, the fraudulent head of the 'priest's bank', the Banco Ambrosiano, found hanging one grey dawn beneath Blackfriars Bridge in London. Asked about his relations with these two epic swindlers, Andreotti smiled in his most sphinx-like manner and replied: 'I must say that I met Mother Teresa much more often than I met Sindona or Calvi.'
Rarely has the odour of sanctity so liberally been sprayed over the whiff of decay. Yet down all the decades of his power, Andreotti sincerely considered that he performed the work of the church in his conduct of politics. He worshipped almost every morning at dawn in the greatest Jesuit church to be found in the centre of Rome. He never forgot the Jesuitical maxim that it is sometimes necessary to commit the lesser evil in order to promote the greater good. He went to confession regularly and even had his sins personally absolved by popes.
The achievements of Andreotti and the intricate, infinitely flexible post- war system he epitomised, will be remembered long after the muckraking has stopped. The country was rebuilt after 20 years of fascist dictatorship and a ruinous war. The Communist Party - which was thoroughly Stalinist in the Fifties - did not come to power. Most Italians saw their living standards improve dramatically. Terrorism, scandal and profligacy battered the state, but did not defeat it.
There was a price to pay. Corruption, inefficiency, a hopeless bureaucracy and now a nation ruled by a television magnate, a group of neo-fascists and the separatists of the Northern League. One day soon they may need a modern Machiavelli to mediate their differences. He will probably advise them to adopt a quietus vivere.
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