That reflection on personal loss during a time of national crisis, many here say, marks a fitting postscript for Western Europe’s most controversial leader. He is set to step down this weekend, likely leaving a technocrat, Mario Monti, scrambling to form an interim government that will attempt to restore shattered investor confidence in Italy and prevent a catastrophic meltdown of the world’s eighth-largest economy.
A modern-day Caesar who openly denied that the nation was slipping into crisis, Berlusconi’s long survival atop Italian politics divided the nation and bemused the outside world. His exit highlights the failures of Europe’s political class to manage a debt crisis that began in Greece, spread to Portugal and Ireland, and is threatening to engulf far more massive Italy.
As he departs, the 75-year-old media tycoon and playboy politician leaves behind a nation where the buzzwords of the day have tellingly changed. Once, talk shows and radio programs here could not get enough of “bunga bunga” — a phrase Berlusconi is said to have learned from Moammar Gaddafi to describe racy parties. Now, Italians are fixated on “il spread” — the dangerously high interest-rate premium Italy is paying to find buyers for its government bonds.
With Italy, a nation saddled with $2.6 trillion in debt, considered too big to bail out, one last-ditch plan being floated here could force every household in the country to cough up enough cash to buy the Italian bonds that many investors now see as too risky. It suggests what observers are calling the irony of the billionaire’s fall, not from sexcapades or corruption charges, but from a debt crisis that now has 60 million Italians — and much of the financial world — on edge.
“Italians are indulgent with our politicians, until they touch our bank accounts,” said Massimo Franco, the economic columnist for the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.
“Unfortunately for him,” Franco continued, “I am afraid that Berlusconi will be remembered for prostitutes and money. And for promising a dream of a better Italy that never came true.”
One of Europe’s richest men, Berlusconi rose to power in the 1990s, and Italy would never be the same. He used his vast television empire to maintain his public persona, cultivating a reputation not through serious news and political talk shows but by squeezing in between gossip and recipes on morning and afternoon Italian TV.
His stations lured viewers with buxom women and cheap comedy. At the same time, Berlusconi cultivated a base of pensioners and housewives who responded to his billionaire’s confidence and Italian charm.