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The Corrupt Reign of Emperor Silvio

Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images
A demonstration for press freedom organized after Berlusconi filed lawsuits against La Repubblica L’Unità, two newspapers that were critical of him, Piazza del Popolo, Rome October 3, 2009

The incident that initially infuriated Berlusconi’s wife, Veronica Lario, occurred in 2009 when he handpicked a couple of dozen showgirls, many of them young women in their early to mid-twenties, to be groomed as candidates for the European Parliament. Few of them had any political experience. One of them had been the weather girl on a Berlusconi network. Several had attended some of his private parties. He set up a school to give them a crash course in European politics so that they wouldn’t embarrass themselves during the campaign. Lario denounced the women as

trash without shame…who offer themselves like virgins to the dragon in order to chase after success, fame, and money.

Almost immediately, the right-wing newspaper Libero published a photograph of Lario topless from her time as an actress, reminding the public that she, too, had been a velina in her day. Libero also published an anonymous and almost certainly false account alleging that Lario was conducting an affair with her bodyguard, claiming that it was this—and not her husband’s conduct—that had provoked the rift within Italy’s first family. This type of gutter journalism apparently did not displease Berlusconi. He hired the editor of Libero, Vittorio Feltri, as the editor of the Berlusconi-owned newspaper Il Giornale, so that he could conduct character assassinations against others of the boss’s enemies.

The scene that callgirl Patrizia D’Addario describes in her memoir—of twenty almost identically dressed young women all vying for Berlusconi’s attention, stroking and petting him while he caresses them—is in many ways the realization of the same male fantasy that Berlusconi had been peddling on his TV stations for more than thirty years. “He wants to be adored by all the women who are here, he likes being touched, caressed, by many hands at once,” she wrote in her memoir Gradisca, Presidente (which means something like “At Your Pleasure” or “Help Yourself, Mr. President”).

I was watching the whole thing with curiosity and my first thought was that I’d found myself in a harem…. He was on the couch and all of us, twenty girls in all, were at his disposal. The younger women were in fierce competition with each other as to who could sit closest to the Prime Minister…. Having been an escort I thought I’d seen a lot, but this I’d never seen, twenty women for one man. Normally in an orgy you have roughly the same number of men and women, otherwise people get upset. But here the other men had no say. There was just one man with the right to copulate and that was the Prime Minister.

In many ways, perhaps the most revealing moment in D’Addario’s memoir came in their breakfast conversation the morning after her night at the presidential palace, which she captured on a digital tape recorder. Berlusconi is bragging about all the international meetings he has presided over, a G-8 summit, a G-14 summit, a G-16: “I am the only leader in the world who has presided over two G-8’s and now I will lead a third. Sono IN-SU-PER-ABILE! ” (“I am unbeatable!”)

D’Addario had little idea of what he was talking about. Despite a professed indifference to politics, she was put up as a candidate for the Rome city council as a member of Berlusconi’s coalition, although she received very few votes. She decided not to campaign—and to go public with her story—after Berlusconi failed to deliver on a promise that he had apparently made to her. He failed, she writes, to help her finish constructing a building she wanted to turn into a small hotel.

This scandal did not destroy Berlusconi in part because of his remarkable control of Italian television and the press. The news director of RAI-1 announced that he would not broadcast anything about the Berlusconi sex scandals, since it was gossip rather than news—a standard he has not maintained when the scandals involved politicians of the center-left. Indeed, the television stations and papers controlled by Berlusconi were able to drum up counter-scandals among his critics. Soon after being appointed the chief of Berlusconi’s Il Giornale and meeting personally with Berlusconi, who is technically not supposed to have any contact with the paper, Vittorio Feltri published a nasty story about the sex life of the editor of the Catholic newspaper LAvvenire, Dino Boffo, who had dared to criticize Berlusconi’s private conduct.

Feltri published what he said was a dossier revealing that Boffo had been accused of harassing a woman who was involved with a man whom Boffo was in love with. Boffo was forced to resign although the question remained: How did Berlusconi’s newspaper obtain information about what was supposed to be a sealed police investigation? Similarly, Berlusconi was handed another gift when police made and circulated a video of a center-left politician, Piero Marrazzo, consorting and snorting cocaine with a Brazilian transsexual prostitute. While the story was true, it was also clear that police, acting on a tip, ambushed Marrazzo with hopes of blackmailing him. They also circulated the video to gossip magazines in Milan, first among them the Berlusconi-owned Chi (Who); the magazine’s editor informed his owners and therefore Berlusconi knew about the tape.

The scandal broke, conveniently, when it did the most good in distracting public attention from Berlusconi’s own troubles. Berlusconi’s consorting with prostitutes appeared like good old-fashioned fun compared to the transsexual relations of the opposition politician. There are rumors that these same gossip magazines have damaging material about scores of politicians that is then used to keep them quiet. Controlling the police, the secret service, the gutter press, and the six main TV channels, Berlusconi is able to make and unmake scandals at will.

While most of the public attention, naturally, concentrated on the titillating details of Berlusconi’s sex life, in some ways the most serious aspects of the scandal received very little attention. Gianpaolo Tarantini, the man who paid D’Addario and several other women to go to Berlusconi’s party, was the head of a health care company from Puglia who was clearly trying to ingratiate himself with the prime minister in order to secure government contracts. Tarantini rented a large villa for some 70,000 euros (about $100,000) a month right next to Berlusconi’s pleasure palace in Sardinia and gave a string of parties with beautiful girls as a kind of honey trap for Berlusconi and other powerful people whose help he wanted. In Puglia and Sardinia, prosecutors have pieced together a seamy web of political patronage, prostitution, and cocaine, but they have done little by way of prosecution. Paolo Guzzanti, a former Berlusconi supporter and employee turned critic, writes that Italy, rather than being a videocracy, has become a “whore-ocracy”—in which hundreds of thousands of people, male and female, perform services for the powerful, some for cash, others for jobs, contracts, and privileges.

The idea of a whore-ocracy has gained considerable credibility in the last few weeks as the outlines of another major scandal have emerged. Prosecutors in Florence have arrested and indicted dozens of contractors and government officials involved in Berlusconi’s Civil Protection Department, the Italian equivalent of the US Federal Emergency Management Agency. Berlusconi has held up this agency as the shining example of his policy of creating a government of “doers” rather than talkers. The ministry’s head, Guido Bertolaso, was credited with the “miracle” of getting the garbage off the streets of Naples, responding to last summer’s earthquake in the Abruzzo, and managing various other public works projects.

In fact, if prosecutors are correct, Bertolaso’s ministry is an ugly tangle of cronyism, waste, and corruption, as well as prostitution. One favored contractor allegedly arranged a private party for Bertolaso involving call girls. Bertolaso insists that he only received “therapeutic massages” but has yet to explain why condoms were distributed at the party. It turns out that the expenses of Gianpiero Tarantani—who paid Patrizia D’Addario and other escorts of Berlusconi—were not in vain: he and his partners appear to have illegally benefitted from Bertolaso’s public works agency thanks to an introduction provided by Berlusconi.

A year after the earthquake, the city of Aquila, the capital of the Abruzzo and epicenter of the disaster, turns out to be a ghost town in which virtually no reconstruction work has taken place. The center of the city had been fenced off as a construction site and television cameras were kept out until angry citizens broke through a police barrier in order to see what had become of their homes. They were stunned to find everything exactly as it was the day of the earthquake. Meanwhile, Berlusconi-controlled state television had been running story after story about “the miracle” of the Abruzzo earthquake reconstruction efforts.

The latest set of scandals help make plain why Italy under Berlusconi has sunk into mediocrity. Italy is dead last in GDP growth per capita of all the thirty countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a key measure of productivity and wealth. The average OECD nation grew at an annual rate of 2.6 percent between 1994 (the year Berlusconi first became prime minister) and 2007, while Italy grew at an annual rate of less than 1.5 percent. If Italians are not in a state of rebellion it is in part because the recession has not set off a dramatic string of bank failures and housing foreclosures or a national debt crisis, as it has in Greece, according to Tito Boeri, a professor at the Bocconi University in Milan, Italy’s leading economics and business university, and the editor of La Voce, a major Web site of economic news and analysis. “But if you look at Gross National Product and per capita income,” he said,

Italy has done worse than almost all other major countries, worse than Germany, than the US, than the UK, and much worse than France, which is a comparable country. We were doing worse before, part of a historic decline, and we have done worse during the recession.

The effects of the recession have been more bearable because the layoffs have primarily hit younger workers, many of whom still live at home; the Italian family has lessened the impact of the downturn.

Italy has done little or nothing to prepare itself for the future. Spain has increased its university population sevenfold since restoring democracy in the mid-1970s and now nearly 29 percent of its adult population has a university degree, while Italy is still poking along with only 12.9 percent. The norm in the OECD is 26 percent. Italy invests less than half the OECD average in research. Instead, one of the main features of Berlusconi’s economic program was something called the scudo fiscale—the tax shield—which allowed people who have been hiding their assets overseas to bring them back to Italy while paying only 5 cents on the dollar—a holiday for tax evaders and money launderers. This kind of crony capitalism will not pull Italy out of its economic funk. Italy is also ranked 84th out of 128 in the World Economic Forum’s 2007 index of gender equality, well after places like Uganda, Bolivia, and Kenya. The sexism of Berlusconi’s media and private conduct permeates the society as a whole. This is an economic and not just a moral issue since female participation in the workforce is a major factor in economic growth.

Berlusconi has also been highly successful in keeping information about the recession out of the news. He attacks as “defeatist” mass media outlets that have been covering the story and accuses them of having fostered the crisis by alarming Italian consumers. Berlusconi’s control of the press and television is unprecedented in a major democracy. Much of his career has been dedicated to the concept that it is appearance and not reality that counts. “Don’t you realize that something doesn’t exist—not an idea, a politician, or a product—unless it is on television?” Berlusconi explained to one of his closest associates. Continuing to remain popular in spite of incompetence, corruption, and national decline, he has shown there is much to that point of view.

Berlusconi’s long tenure in Italy is also, of course, a testament to the parlous state of the country’s opposition, which is hopelessly divided and lacking in vision. The Democratic Party—the principal opposition party—chose not to participate in the “No Berlusconi Day” in December, wasting an opportunity to address 350,000 potential voters and to tap into a growing protest movement on the Internet. The party’s new leader, Pier Luigi Bersani, is an intelligent but somewhat traditional politician, with roots in the old Italian Communist Party. He seems wary of a protest movement that has grown up independent of conventional politics. The parties of the opposition are still eager for a couple of minutes on prime-time TV, chasing after Berlusconi in a domain where he will always win, rather than using the new media that Berlusconi does not control and through which they might develop new forms of political communication and organization.

But while it is possible to manipulate sex scandals or to dismiss well-documented criminal cases as political witch hunts, it is harder to convince ordinary voters that they are better off when they are not. Many Italians are struggling to make ends meet and, according to some polls, they sense that all is not as it appears to be. So far no promising opponents have emerged to challenge Berlusconi; but as the economy fails to grow, reality may slowly make a comeback. Or perhaps Italy will continue to be enthralled by the ongoing reality TV show that Berlusconi has created.

—March 11, 2010


The Triumph of Emperor Silvio June 10, 2010

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