Every time I met Silvio Berlusconi, usually in his own Palazzo Grazioli, he would ask questions about terrorism or munitions policy and wait for me to answer. Afterwards, he would reciprocate with a pair of E. Marinella ties in the designer’s extravagantly elaborate box.
Because I only wear ties when I really must, I kept a few and would bring the rest as gifts when meeting prime ministers in other countries. Over the years, however, it increasingly transpired that these men had also met Berlusconi and received their own Marinella. They would respond with a Berlusconi anecdote, which invariably included a very good joke and some useful advice, delivered in his exuberant manner with the happy smile of a lifelong optimist.
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That was the secret of Berlusconi. For, in spite of its beauty, Italy is a country of pessimists, while Berlusconi always believed that something good was waiting for him just round the corner — and, for decades, there was.
Berlusconi never had to climb Disraeli’s greasy pole to become Italy’s prime minister. When the moment came in 1994, Berlusconi simply went on his three television channels to call for mass support for his brand-new Forza Italia party, which he readily obtained from a frightened electorate. All the moderate parties had collapsed, and a takeover by the Communists, who had renamed themselves the Democratic Party of the Left, seemed imminent.
The cause of this chaos was the Mani Pulite investigative campaign started by Antonio di Pietro, a then-unknown prosecutor who used Italy’s unique and abusive system of “preventive detention” — which allows prosecutors to imprison people without any evidence, ostensibly to fight organised crime — to lock up politicians and make them talk. Di Pietro was soon imitated by other prosecutors across the country: by the end of 1993, more than 4,000 elected officials at every level of government had been investigated or remained under investigation, with others released only if they denounced a higher-level official or major business figure.
Because suspects could be re-arrested once the original time limit had expired, a number of prominent politicians and businessmen killed themselves in prison — including, in July 1993, Gabriele Cagliari, the head of the ENI oil company, Italy’s largest enterprise. This was a great shock to an already demoralised political and business establishment. Everyone at the top knew Cagliari personally, as I did myself (I went with him to Leningrad, as it then was, to negotiate with mayor Sobchak and his German-speaking foreign affairs director Vladimir Putin).
It was in this context that Berlusconi founded Forza Italia. A few months later, on 11 May 1994, he won enough seats in the Chamber of Deputies and Senate to form a government. At first there was promise: it tried to initiate liberalising reforms of Italy’s highly deformed state-directed economy. But before it had made much progress, Berlusconi fell from power. What was left of Italy’s political and business establishment could not accept that the upstart, incurably lower-middle-class Berlusconi was the country’s political leader — and by January 1995, he was intrigued out of office, with president Oscar Luigi Scalfaro engineering the defection of some of Berlusconi’s new allies.
There was no new general election because Scalfaro contrived a regrouping of parties that formed a new government under the technocrat Lamberto Dini. But Berlusconi’s party faithful remained in control of regional and local authorities across Italy, and its parliamentary votes were still needed. This yielded real power, which was often used to favour Berlusconi’s widespread business interests, but also to promote the liberalisation of Italy’s state-heavy economy. It eventually yielded tangible benefits, including the transformation of the decrepit money-losing Poste Italiane into an efficient modern service that is still present in every village.
It was not, however, until June 2001 that Berlusconi had enough votes to be made prime minister again and form Italy’s longest serving government since the Fifties. Over the next five years, the country’s economy was further liberalised, and its defence strategy, particularly after 9/11, strengthened. Even before then, under the influence of Francesco Cossiga — who was a real security expert while variously serving as interior minister, prime minister and president — Italy had taken firm measures in response to its own Red Brigades domestic terrorists. But Berlusconi’s decidedly pro-American and pro-Israel stance induced him to do even more, palpably strengthening the government’s resolve to prevent, and not just “fight”, terrorism like every other country. The result, 22 years later, is that while Italy’s Muslim population has continued to increase and its borders remain porous, not a single person has been wounded, let alone killed, by an Islamist terrorist on Italian soil since 9/11.
This was the Berlusconi that I dealt with in those post-9/11 years. Not Berlusconi the energetic playboy, who at different times kept an entire harem of young girls to be made available to visiting political leaders who were so inclined, as most were; not Berlusconi the businessman, who continued to watch over his many different businesses while managing state affairs; but rather Berlusconi the industrial executive who had learned that sometimes the chief executive must engage with the most minute details to do his job — and there was nothing facile or irresponsible about that Berlusconi.
In many ways, his final government between 2008 and 2011 was a tale of personal decline, culminating in the peculiar circumstances of his downfall. He was neither deposed by a cabal of rival party leaders nor by the treachery of members of his coalition, but by his own minister of the treasury and Italy’s president. To avoid Greece’s fate, Italy had to raise taxes just enough to persuade investors that it would control its public spending. But Berlusconi refused. In fact, he refused to look even at the numbers his finance minister was proffering; he was then in his maximum harem phase, with a dozen young girls housed in a luxury dormitory from which they were ferried to attend his after-dinner entertainments.
After that, his leadership waned, never really recovering even after he gave up his harem to marry a new wife. By the time he died on Monday morning, Berlusconi had led several lives, mostly rather well, and always in great part successful.