War seemed unthinkable in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, when I was there lately. There was too much going on, mostly happy stuff, and the variety and vivacity of the crowd might have diverted even George Bush and Dick Cheney from their absorption in missiles and rockets and cakewalks in Baghdad. Italians, who are with us on the war against terrorism, are two-thirds opposed to Bush's war against Iraq, even though Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is trying to give Britain's Tony Blair a run for his money as Bush's best friend in Europe.
But for his people, one war at a time is enough. They agree with Bush's description of Saddam Hussein as "a homicidal dictator who is addicted to weapons of mass destruction." But they don't think he is suicidal.
Our little party lingered for hours in the famous square -- waiters do not bring checks except by invitation. Life was at the bubble all around us. An ambulance was parked at the entrance, surrounded by anxious tour mates of a woman who had collapsed on one of Florence's ornate trash bins. A police car inched its way through the crush. Hard by was a jazz combo warming up. In the center of the plaza, a classical trio was at the ready and a soprano with a rich voice was singing "Ave Maria"; she was accompanied by a harpist wearing a dinner dress. A man in white tails, with flour on his face, was entertaining tourists with impersonations of Mark Twain and Charlie Chaplin. We counted three brides as they headed for photo ops before the world's most famous city hall, with a reproduction of Michelangelo's imperturbable David at its side, as waiters and loungers applauded.
Under a blue sky, the only discordant notes were found in the newspapers. Thunderbolts emanated from Washington. The president and the secretary of defense seemed beside themselves with rage at Germany. The news that the country that had plunged the world into two murderous conflicts in the last century had finally kicked the habit and gone dove could have caused celebration. But Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder had campaigned against Bush's "adventure" in Iraq, and he won reelection.
Rumsfeld was so steamed that he refused to meet with his Teutonic counterpart at a NATO meeting; the president has yet to congratulate Schroeder on his election, and one of the White House warlords, Richard Perle, told a German publication that Schroeder should resign.
In the midst of it all, while Uncle Sam was bent on showing the world how cooperative and multilateral he is, a decree was issued in the name of the first female national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice -- remember how we longed for a woman at the top in Vietnam councils? It was a rugged document, proclaiming the policy of preemptive war. It smacked much more of Julius Caesar than of George Washington.
We could see that Bush was breaking all institutions in sight, like kindling over his knee. He threatened the United Nations with irrelevance; he made the European Union, the Democratic Party, the House and the Senate lie down and roll over.
The Italians were baffled. "E pazzo?" (Is he crazy?) they would ask politely. The van driver who took us back to our hotel along the Arno river, the Villa La Massa, took both hands off the steering wheel to inquire passionately of his nervous American passengers, "Why you want the war?" He did not blame America, only Bush.
Filippo drove us every day to the Ponte Vecchio, where we had one of those delightful encounters for which Italy is famous. We met what we considered to be the flower of Florence, a beautiful golden retriever who was a professional panhandler. She sat on a pink mat with a basket in her mouth. When a passerby dropped a coin in her basket, she offered, on command from her master -- a rather villainous-looking man sitting on a nearby curbstone -- a paw, her left one, because the basket tilted a little to the right. She was like the Italians around her, cheerful and good at her job. She posed willingly for pictures and bestowed kisses and smiles on an emotional Englishwoman, who seemed torn between caressing Doris and thrashing her master for animal exploitation. Doris seemed to like him and rested her chin on his knee during her infrequent breaks.
My friend Phil has a theory that the Lord, having made teenagers, felt constrained to make amends and so created the golden retriever. Doris certainly made up for lots of green hair and nose rings.
War could bring death to the fun in the piazzas on sunny afternoons. Filippo and Doris could lose their jobs. The Italian economy would suffer and so would we if we couldn't go to the country where kindness to strangers is a religion and you can't turn your head without seeing something beautiful, and you can't get a bad meal if you try.