ROME, Italy — The most difficult period in my 12 years as a journalist in Italy started in 2006, when Romano Prodi replaced Silvio Berlusconi as the country’s prime minister.
Prodi was more than qualified for the job — he was a former European Commission president and had already served as prime minister. But after five years of Berlusconi’s off-the-cuff, colorful, and shocking brand of politics, writing about any other political leader was like composing an essay about waiting for the bus.
To the dismay of most of the Italians I know but in a stroke of good fortune for copywriters, following two brow-sweating years of Prodi’s understated and usually monotone competence, Berlusconi was back.
In contrast to writing about most politicians, copy on Berlusconi practically composes itself. This is the guy who counseled New York bankers to invest in Italy because the country has beautiful secretaries, and who compared a German member of parliament to a concentration camp commandant for asking a tough question.
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Berlusconi has drawn a direct line between himself and Jesus, he’s denied Mussolini ever had anyone killed, and he advised victims of a tragic earthquake that left nearly 20,000 homeless to look at their plight like “a weekend of camping outdoors.”
He almost never said “no comment,” almost never apologized, almost never turned away from a microphone or camera. Asked about his weakness for young women, he offered that it was “better to be fond of beautiful girls than to be gay.”
On whether there was virtue to being monogamous in life, he told a joke: “When asked if they’d like to have sex with me, 30 percent of women answered, ‘yes’,” he said. “The other 70 percent replied, ‘What? Again?’”
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He owns the country’s three largest private television networks, while, as prime minister, he also had control over his company’s biggest competitor, the state broadcaster RAI — sparking serious conflict of interest questions he never seriously addressed.
Berlusconi has been taken to criminal or civil court 19 times in the 17 years since he first entered politics on charges ranging from tax evasion to bribery and from abuse of power to paying a 17-year-old cabaret dancer for sex. He coined the phrase “Bunga, bunga” — Berlusconi shorthand for dinners that morph into orgies.
And all this has taken place while the Italian economy moaned and sputtered along.
If this year follows expectations it will be the tenth time in 11 years Italy’s economic growth trailed that of the European Union. Almost one in three workers under the age of 25 in Italy are jobless. Trash is piled high on the streets of Naples. The epic ruins of Pompeii have fallen into disrepair.
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In recent months, tens of thousands of Italians have taken to the streets to protest Berlusconi’s treatment of women, his conflicts of interest issues, and his legal troubles. And in recent weeks, Italy’s economic ineptitude spread beyond its borders, casting the future of the euro currency in doubt.
Chronicling Berlusconi’s political career often left me feeling like Tacitus writing about Nero’s strumming his lyre and singing while Rome burned.
But Berlusconi was seductive as well. Like most non-Italians, I was dismayed by Berlusconi’s politics from the outset … but completely charmed during two face-to-face interviews.
He charmed Italy for years: pollsters have noted that Berlusconi would without fail do better during elections than in opinion polls. Why? Respondents were too embarrassed to tell a pollster they’d support Berlusconi — but with a kind of secret admiration they would still cast their vote for his party.
Only recently have his core supporters lost patience with the man psychologists say did the things they wish they could do. He was rich and powerful, and they believed he’d make them rich and powerful, too.
There is no doubt Berlusconi changed Italy. He will leave the country’s economy on life support, and while reform swept across the European Union over the last 15 years Berlusconi limited the trend in Italy. He helped instill a kind of “cheater-wins” mentality in Italian politics that will not be easy to eradicate.
Berlusconi has been prime minister for nine of my 12 years in Italy, and over that time he changed me as well. Like a researcher enthralled with studying the ingenuity of a virus or cancer that is killing the patient infected with it, I admit I have always found the Berlusconi phenomenon in Italy fascinating.
Now he is gone again, almost surely for the last time. With Italy swept up in Europe’s fast-growing debt crisis and while fighting domestic scandals and plummeting approval levels, Berlusconi officially left office Saturday. The news was met by applauding crowds gathered in the cold weather outside the Quirinale Palace.
Berlusconi’s exit is clearly the first step in healing many of the wounds he inflicted on his country. But at least for me, it is also tinged with the subtle aftertaste of regret.
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