A new book reveals why Silvio Berlusconi’s countrymen put up with him.
6. The Zelig Factor
All politicians need to be able to identify with their interlocutors. Few are capable of actually turning into them. A need for approval has taught Mr. B. the art of transformation. Woody Allen’s Zelig would be proud. A family man with his five children (and two wives, while they lasted). A women’s man among the ladies. Youthful with the young. Wise with the old. A night owl with the night set. A worker at the workplace. Entrepreneurial with the business community. Youthful with the young. Rossonero to the core with A.C. Milan supporters. Milanese with the people of Milan. Lombard with the people of Lombardy. Italian with people from southern Italy. A Neapolitan among Neapolitans (and their music). If he went to see a basketball game, he’d walk out taller.
7. The Harem Factor
Silvio’s obsession with women, an open secret in his business circles and then in Rome’s corridors of power, became public knowledge in 2009, when he attended Noemi Letizia’s 18th birthday party and reports emerged about his soirées at Villa Certosa and Palazzo Grazioli. At first, he denied the charges, then he grudgingly admitted them (“Am I faithful? Frequently.”), and in the end he played along (“I’m no saint.”). The revelations left him unscathed. He lost his wife, but not his electoral base. Lots of Italians who prefer self-indulgence to self-discipline admit that Mr. B. does what they can only dream of doing. But there’s more to this than titillation. Youth is contagious, as they knew in ancient Greece (where pretty young things of both sexes took advantage to learn from the old). One staunch, longterm associate, now in his sixties, has described how restless Silvio gets during marathon meetings: “It’s clear he’s afraid he’ll catch old age from us.”
8. The Medici Factor
Together with the comune, or municipality, the signoria (absolute lordship) is the only original political unit Italians have created. All the others, from feudalism to monarchy, totalitarianism, federalism, and parliamentary democracy, have been imported from France, Britain, Germany, Spain, or the United States. Their Italian incarnations have always been slightly artificial—take Fascism’s cringe-making awkwardness, or the acquiescence of today’s Parliament—but a signoria stirs ancient instincts.
The attitudes of many Italians toward Mr. B. are reminiscent of how their forebears regarded the signore, or lord. We know he puts his own glory, family, and interests ahead of everything else, but we hope he’ll spare a thought for us. Giuseppe Prezzolini noted, “The fact that they had to lead such difficult lives, made of the signori keen observers of men.” Cosimo de’ Medici, founder of the great Florentine dynasty, is reported to have been circumspect and capable of reading a man’s character merely by looking at him. Silvio Berlusconi is also regarded as a formidable connoisseur of men, by whom he demands to be admired, not criticized; adulated, not betrayed; and loved, not weighed in the balance.
9. The T.I.N.A. Factor
T.I.N.A.: There Is No Alternative. Margaret Thatcher’s classic acronym says it all about many voters. The center-left alternative to Mr. B. has proved unappetizing—strife-torn coalitions, woolly ideas, and hypocritical behavior—and the Democratic Party’s communist origins are undeniable, as Mr. B. never fails to underline. When in power, Italy’s center-left has had spectacular, carbon-copy failures: elected in 1996 and 2006, only to commit suicide in 1998 and 2008.
Italians are pragmatic. Before selecting what they think is right, they take what seems useful. And some of Mr. B.’s initiatives are popular, or at least less unpopular than the alternative: abolition of the local property tax on first homes, discouraging illegal immigration, the fight against organized crime, and reforming traffic law. If these initiatives are successful, there are plenty of media channels happy to remind us of the fact. Should they flop, someone will help us to forget.
It also has to be said that a united center-right is at least as reassuring as a divided center-left is irritating. If the only way to keep a political alliance together is to own it, Mr. B. was swift to work out how much it would cost: financially, politically, and in frayed nerves. Without realizing it, Mr. B. followed the advice of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who said, apropos of FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, “It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.” This accounts for Mr. B.’s expulsion of, and disdain for, Gianfranco Fini, cofounder of the People of Freedom. In 2010, Mr. Fini dared to leave the tent after sixteen years without indicating which way he would be pointing.
10. The Palio Factor
You’ve probably heard about the Palio horse race in Siena. For the winning contrada, as the competing districts of the city are called, it is a huge source of satisfaction. But it’s equally satisfying when your most hated rival contrada loses. Lots of things work like that in Italy, from geography to industry, the arts, and sports. Lazio soccer fans, for instance, were delighted to lose to Inter Milan so that capital city rivals A.S. Roma would not be champions. Politics is no exception. Tribalism is not a tactic; it’s an instinct. To keep the left they see as unreliable out of power, many Italians would have voted for the Devil. And Mr. B. can be pretty diabolical. But Satan’s style is something else.