Italy's 59Th Post-War Try

Italians have selected a new government, and politically fastidious people throughout the North Atlantic community are saying the Italians did not do it quite right. It is Italy's 59th government since the Second World War. Silvio Berlusconi, 64, the richest Italian, will be prime minister. Before Italians voted two Sundays ago, they were hectored by editorial harrumphing from European newspapers, urging them not to do what they then blithely did in choosing Berlusconi. You will not be astonished to learn that he is a conservative.

Berlusconi has frequently been indicted on serious charges, including tax evasion and bribing judges. But his three convictions were subsequently dismissed. His more than $12.8 billion worth of holdings (banks, real estate, Italy's largest publishing house, and much more) do indeed pose colossal conflicts of interest that must be dealt with. He controls the three largest commercial television networks, with 80 percent of the commercial television audience. But people fretting about Berlusconi's control of some media are notably less worried about the leftist tilt of Italian state television.

Much of the European intelligentsia's dislike of Berlusconi is ideological. Eleven of the 15 nations in the European Union have left-of-center governments, and the EU itself is a nascent superstate, the repository of collectivist impulses that have been seeking new means of expression since the collapse of socialism.

A self-made and unapologetic entrepreneur, Berlusconi represents the wealth-creating private sector against the wealth-distributing public sector. (As does George W. Bush, the first president with an M.B.A.) He favors tax cuts and reform of Italy's baroque electoral and sclerotic regulatory systems. Most unforgivable, in the eyes of his despisers, is his affection for the United States: "I am on whatever side America is on... I can never forget how Americans saved us after the war." He means U.S.--actually CIA--assistance to Italy's democratic forces when communists came close to a takeover in 1948.

Americans are awash in war nostalgia--Tom Brokaw's book "Greatest Generation," the movies' "Saving Private Ryan" and next week "Pearl Harbor." For Americans, the war connotes emotional clarity and military and political heroism. For Italians, memories of the war and postwar struggles are more mixed and burdensome. A small and dwindling quantity of Mussolini nostalgia taints, very slightly, a fringe of Berlusconi's coalition.

Mussolini's dictatorship was much nastier than is suggested by the characterization of it as tyranny tempered by anarchy. But fascism has long since stopped being a fighting faith. And even when it was one, Italians were a terrible disappointment to Il Duce. Governed so often by conquerors, Italians have always had minimal respect for the state.

Yes, there is some xenophobia and other extremism in Berlusconi's coalition. Some supporters favor separatism for northern Italy. But national unity is still something of a novelty. Less than two centuries ago "Italy" was still a geographical, not a political, expression. Many Berlusconi supporters robustly--and sensibly--dislike the busybodies of Brussels who run the European Union, but some use disgraceful rhetoric, as when one important ally denounced "European technocrats and pedophiles" and called the departing prime minister "a Nazi dwarf." But before being too condescending about Italian rhetorical excesses, remember that Al Gore suggested that George W. Bush is sympathetic to slavery. (He said Bush's Supreme Court nominees would have views akin to those held in days when blacks "were considered three fifths of a human being.")

Italian political culture has long had an operatic streak. A 14th-century ruler, not content with the title "Nicholas, the severe and merciful, tribune of liberty, peace and justice, liberator of the holy Roman republic," embellished it: "Nicholas, severe and merciful, deliverer of Rome, defender of Italy, friend of mankind, and of liberty, peace and justice, tribune august." Berlusconi is in that tradition of self-dramatization. He is what another media baron, William Randolph Hearst, wanted to be--Citizen Kane, but with a happy final reel.

Will Italy's Citizen Kane find happiness? Berlusconi says, "There's nobody on the world stage who can possibly claim to be a match for me." In a--what? testimonial?--that sets something of a record for damning with faint praise, a member of Berlusconi's 1994 government says, "He's a megalomaniac, yes, but he's not Kim Il Sung." So there.

Berlusconi, elegantly tailored and smooth as marble, is a gaudy self-creation, another Italian work of art. It was characteristic of Dutch, not of Italian, painters to celebrate serene domesticity in pictures of kitchens. Italians prefer style and spectacle. In his book "The Italians," the late Luigi Barzini marveled at the discrepancy between Italians' dazzling cultural achievements over the centuries and the mediocre quality of their political history. Italian political culture, Barzini said, has made "all revolutions irresistible but superficial, and all new regimes unstable."

"Italians," Barzini wrote, "have always excelled in all activities in which the appearance is predominant: architecture, decoration, landscape gardening, the figurative arts, pageantry, fireworks, ceremonies, opera, and now industrial design, stage jewelry, fashions, and the cinema." Practicality has been another matter. Italian medieval armor was gorgeous. It also was too light for combat, for which German armor was preferred.

The Italian peninsula was the incubator of modernity. Italians--Leonardo, Galileo, Machiavelli, Columbus and many others--transformed mankind's sense of politics, society and the universe. But Italians, painters and connoisseurs of so many beautiful pictures, often produce a politics more picturesque than practical. Berlusconi is certainly the former. How well he succeeds in being the latter will determine how soon Italy has its 60th postwar government.