At a different time, the joint appearance of President Bush and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi might have been a lighthearted night of friendship and playful banter. But this is a year of elections, of war, of trials. The two leaders, both battling growing criticism over the military occupation in Iraq, were in no mood for jokes. So last night's Sons of Italy Foundation dinner was less a party than a bilingual campaign stop.
The Bush-Berlusconi ticket arrived at the Grand Hyatt Hotel to rousing ovations. Their message: Hang tough.
"As June 30th approaches, the enemies of freedom grow even more desperate about the rise of democracy in Iraq," Bush told the audience. The awful images on television, he explained, were the desperate tactics of a hateful few. "You see, their goal is to undermine the will of our coalition. . . . They will not succeed. My resolve is firm. The resolve of the prime minister of Italy is firm. The resolve of the American people is firm."
Berlusconi answered with a reminder of America's liberation of Europe in World War II. "Without the help of your great country, our destiny would have been much different," he said. " . . . When I see your flag, the Stars and Stripes, I don't see only the flag of a democracy, of a great country. I see, first and foremost, a symbol, a universal message of democracy and freedom."
It was the first time a sitting U.S. president and an Italian prime minister attended a major Italian American event together.
"This is a perfect venue for President Bush," foundation Executive Director Phil Piccigallo had promised the White House. The Sons of Italy boast 575,000 members in 50 states -- "grass-roots, family-oriented, extremely patriotic, which generally translates into conservative," he said. And, if the president needed one more reason to accept the dinner invitation, Italian Americans are heavily represented in swing states.
So Bush was practically guaranteed a standing ovation from the 900 guests, and he got three. The crowd was so loud that the president's introduction was cut short because of the cheering. A beaming Berlusconi received the first International Man of Courage award for his support of U.S. efforts against international terrorism, and dedicated it to Italian soldiers.
The president quickly got to the main topic of the night. "The prime minister and I had a strategy session on how to help the Iraqis realize their liberty," he said. "I appreciated his good, strong advice." He praised the courage of Italians in Iraq, and vowed not to retreat. "We will not be intimidated by thugs and assassins. . . . The world watches for any weakness. They will see no weakness in America. They will see no weakness in Italy."
Berlusconi had a more difficult task -- affirming his support of the Bush administration while soothing voters back home. This is his second term as prime minister, and he made it into the record books earlier this month when his ruling coalition became the longest-lasting government in the republic's history.
But Italy's richest man is fighting for his political life. In January, the country's highest court allowed a bribery trial against him to proceed. His approval rating has sunk to 30 percent. Critics have accused him of being a Bush "lap dog." The pressure to pull Italy's 3,000 troops out of Iraq increased earlier this week when its first soldier was killed in combat; the Italian parliament had allowed troops in Iraq only for humanitarian purposes. On Tuesday, Berlusconi said he would push for a "clear turnaround in the Iraqi situation."
Last night he spoke to audiences here and at home, delivering his remarks in Italian. He requested headsets for every audience member so they could listen to a translation -- a highly unusual accessory at a black-tie dinner party.
Berlusconi, like Bush, focused on Iraq. Once the war ended, he said, another began by terrorists -- although he referred to them twice as "communists."
"It is for this reason I had no doubt, my government had no doubt, the majority of citizens had no doubt, that the work in Iraq had to be continued," he said. "Leaving Iraq now would mean only handing it over to chaos, to a very long-lasting civil war, and it would mean, first and foremost, give the victory to the terrorists. We cannot absolutely allow that."
He went on to praise Bush as "a man for whom yes means yes and no means no. This is the first element of morality in politics: keeping the promises you have made."
The two leaders left the dinner immediately after their remarks, but will meet again on June 4, when Bush attends the 60th-anniversary celebration of the Allied liberation of Rome.
"I'd stand on a table for Bush," said New York restaurant owner Rosario Panepinto, who once threw out a customer who insulted the president. "I think he's awesome. And I hope he gets another four years. I think too many people have too many things to say and need to let the people in position to do what they have to do. We don't need to know everything single thing that goes on."
His table mate Dario Gristina, chairman of an energy services company, agreed. "As an Italian American, I am especially proud of Prime Minister Berlusconi's efforts to align himself with President Bush. The reality is that Europeans have a much more scattered view of world events, and the effects of those events."
There was, of course, the customary praise for all things Italian. Last night's dinner raised $1 million for scholarship and cultural preservation programs. After dinner, awards were presented to UBS Financial Services Chairman Joseph Grano, National Breast Cancer Coalition President Frances Visco and Georgetown University President John DeGioia.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) -- the highest-ranking Italian American in elective national office -- told the crowd how proud she was and praised the honorees and troops. "We have to build a future worthy of their sacrifice," she said.