Berlusconi Embodies Italy's Greatest Weaknesses, Worst Instincts

Italy’s colorful P.M. refused to conform with the European establishment. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters-Landov

They are going to miss him when he's gone. Though few Italians may admit it openly, Silvio Berlusconi is quintessentially one of them. For better or worse, his departure will leave a scar on the national psyche. It's not so much his massive wealth or media influence that has kept him in power for the better part of 17 years. His edge lies in tempting the population to believe that they could live his dolce vita—an equivalent of the American Dream of prosperity with the addition of scantily clad women.

The fact that it has taken a catastrophic near collapse of Italy's (and Europe's) economy for Italians to finally let him go is a testament to the country's love of its rogue in office. Berlusconi is not just any old charlatan. He is the great enabler who, for nearly two decades, has allowed Italians to feel they can cheat on anything from their taxes to their spouses because he does it himself. Berlusconi knows the Italian psyche well in part because he's created it through his media influence. And he has succeeded both personally and politically by playing to Italians' greatest weaknesses and worst instincts. "His passion is boundless and seems to have several strands: the idealization of youth, the commercial value of beauty, the appreciation of women, and male pride," says Beppe Severgnini, journalist and author of Mamma Mia. "It fuels daydreams and provides justification for inexcusable yearnings."

"Berlusconismo," as his influence has been dubbed in Italy, is about much more than his girls. He is a self-made man who started his career selling vacuum cleaners, then working as a crooner on cruise ships and in nightclubs. He is still an entertainer in many ways. Very much at home onstage, he mesmerizes audiences by immersing himself in their world, telling crude jokes and silly stories even as he delivers political messages. He has wrangled a fortune out of his real-estate and media holdings, cutting corners and skirting the law, leaving a trail of yet-unproven corruption charges and allegations in his wake. He criticizes authority, claiming the judiciary is out to get him as he tells of his own struggles with the law. He has been investigated for tax evasion, graft, abuse of office, and mafia collusion—not to mention for paying a 17-year-old for sex, all of which he denies. "It is the biggest persecution of a politician ever carried out in any democracy in history," he told Newsweek in an interview in 2006. "But there is nothing in my life I have to be ashamed of."

Empathy and envy both play a role in why Italians have voted him into power three times in the last 17 years. He has won 51 confidence votes in Parliament since being reelected in 2008. He is the third-richest man in Italy, with an estimated worth of more than $6.2 billion. Never mind that his wealth and success grew out of an era marred by deep-seated corruption. It's the spoils of his dubious labor that they admire. He is known as "il cavaliere," the knight. His lavish villas are enviable to everyday Italians who share cramped quarters with up to three generations of the same family. His public gaffes may cause embarrassment to the industrialists and political elite, but his working-class charm and cringeworthy comments are cheered in bars. Headlines of his orgiastic fetes—"bunga bunga"—make him a cult hero to a voting majority. After all, sex scandals at the age of 75 are a badge of honor in macho Italy. He even owns a soccer team—A.C. Milan—and a winning one at that.

Berlusconi came to power at a time when the conservative political elite were fearful of a growing left-leaning movement they called the "red peril." Berlusconi represented a clear anti-communist choice that has always played a role in his electoral success. For some, like Lupo Rattazzi, a Harvard-educated airline entrepreneur who also happens to be a descendent of Italy's seigniorial Agnelli family, Berlusconi played the communist card to his advantage time and again. "A majority of Italians do not want to be run by the heirs of the former Communist Party, let alone by the current ragtag army of splintered left-wing groups," Rattazzi told Newsweek about Berlusconi's appeal. "Believe me, it's not so much about the bimbos and tax dodging." Still, the harm to Italy's reputation internationally is something that will take years to repair. "Personally I will miss nothing of him, in particular his absolutely atrocious jokes and the brutte figure abroad to which he was continuing to expose this great country. He was destroying the great brand that Italy is and he cannot be forgiven for that," Rattazzi says. "In terms of his willingness to really attack the structural problems of Italy which require imposing serious sacrifices, he was incapable of doing so because he likes to be known as a 'seducer' and as such, he simply doesn't like to deliver bad news to anyone."

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters-Landov

Opposition parliamentarian Andrea Sarubbi makes a different point. "Before Berlusconi, our governments changed every nine months or so," he told Newsweek. "He brought an era of stability in terms of continuation of the government." He also polarized the country by turning every political debate into the equivalent of a sports competition. You were either with him or against him. "He reduced Italy to a mass of soccer fans. Parliament was often like being at a stadium," Sarubbi says. "But what's incredible is that after 17 years, in the eyes of many Italians, Berlusconi is still one of them—not a politician. He somehow managed to never be considered part of the political caste." In fact, Berlusconi has stayed in power for so long precisely because many Italians believe he is one of them, a leader who says what the voting majority of Italians are thinking. (When he complimented Barack Obama on his "suntan," for instance, he was echoing a casual racism that is evident across Italy.)

Italians often use the word furbo—crafty—to describe Berlusconi. Maria Latella, magazine editor and anchorwoman on Italy's Sky 24 news network, is the personal biographer of Berlusconi's second ex-wife, Veronica Lario. She told Newsweek that many Italians admire that trait most. Only the wily get ahead, she says, and many Italians believe, through Berlusconi's example, that the system of using personal connections, friendships, and being cunning is the only one that works. "Berlusconi was the solid evidence of this conviction. He made it because he was always a little more crafty than the others," she explained. "He stayed so long because he was useful—especially to many Italians, like those who don't pay taxes. Maybe Italians will miss the illusion of thinking that there is always a way to solve things. They will soon have to realize that sometimes being crafty doesn't help."

Chicanery clearly did help Berlusconi maintain a high approval rating despite decades of squalid headlines. Few politicians could get away with the type of tawdry scandals Berlusconi survives with such aplomb. He turns every sex scandal into a sexual feat with a wink and a nudge, and each criminal investigation is yet more proof of what's wrong with Italy's left-wing-led judiciary. He was the alternative to the status quo back in 1994; now he defines it. "Berlusconi is a historical figure irrespective of his many failures," said Andrea Mandel-Mantello, head of the Italian-American investment bank AdviCorp. "He changed the way politics were made in Italy. He made fabulous promises that gave hope to a lot of Italians who believed in the future of an Italy that would be run by such a successful entrepreneur instead of a politician."

Berlusconi has been embattled—and emboldened—by a string of sex scandals that began with his attendance at the 18th birthday party of a Neapolitan underwear model and continued with charges that he paid a 17-year-old Moroccan exotic dancer for sex. His response? Brazen. He told his supporters last month that he was going to resurrect his defunct "Forza Italia," or Go Italy, political party and call it "Forza Gnocca," or "Pussy Power." The comment may play well to a certain strain of Italian men, but it should be lost on no one that Italy is a country that treats most women as second-class citizens. Italy ranked 74th in the World Economic Forum's 2010 Global Gender Gap Report, behind Cuba and Venezuela. The report shows that closing the gender gap would boost the euro zone's GDP by as much as 13 percent, but again Italy wins for worst performance in gender equality. Italy ranked 87th worldwide in labor participation, 121st in wage parity, 97th in opportunity for women to take leadership roles. The report concluded, "Italy continues to be one of the lowest-ranking countries in the EU and deteriorated further over the last year."

The author Severgnini says Italians have been accomplices to Berlusconi, in large part because his vast media interests play a role in shaping consensus in the country. In Italy, television is divided evenly between state and private licenses. Berlusconi's Mediaset owns 45 percent of the private television channels. As prime minister, he indirectly controlled a further 50 percent through state TV. Berlusconi did not handpick programming on state television, but he did choose the board of directors who do. "Mr. B. reflects an eternal Italy of well-worn pickup lines, endless erotic stimulation, and sincere compliments," says Severgnini. "The man says into the microphone exactly what millions of Italian males say at the bar. It's not off-putting, because when the powerful are outrageous it sounds like spontaneity."

For years Berlusconi has been saying no one can replace him, and in many ways he's right. He has created a complicated Italy in which he is the only person with the skill set to navigate the landscape. Many of his laws were tailored to his needs, from the one that got him reelected to the various immunity laws that keep him from criminal prosecution. Now even his staunch supporters have had to let him go. Bill Emmott, a former editor of The Economist and author of Forza, Italia, argues that "his basic promise was to do no harm to his voters, not to raise their taxes or take away their rights and privileges. So it is fitting that the end of his third prime ministership has come because pleasure is no longer an option and optimism has come to look like denial or delusion. Without him in office, those Italians who liked him as a kind of pleasure drug to help them avoid facing reality will now have withdrawal symptoms. Reality has finally intervened."

In leaving office, Berlusconi will have to pay a price for his antics. He will lose the partial immunity from prosecution that he gave himself. Had he been able to save the economy or institute desperately needed reforms, he may have lasted until his mandate ended in 2013. As it was, he got greedy. "Berlusconi never lost popularity among a very vast section of the Italian population," says Mandel-Mantello. "He was just never able to translate that popularity into action."

Severgnini believes Italy will be just fine without their entertaining leader. "I do not think Italians will miss Berlusconi. Remember, we're an operatic society. We cheer the tenor until the very moment we boo him off the stage." With the curtain falling on the Berlusconi show, Italians will soon find out if the next act is better or worse.