Michael Mewshaw is the author of 20 books. The most recent is “Sympathy for the Devil: Forty Years of Friendship with Gore Vidal.”
By Michael Day
274 pp. $28
‘Being Berlusconi,” by British journalist Michael Day, sports a cover that promises a comic mash-up of the three-time Italian prime minister’s howling malfeasances. Frozen in a rictus-like smile, Il Cavaliere’s face resembles a deep-dish pizza left in the oven too long. His hair transplant has the look of burned crust, and, as if in a thought balloon, there’s a busty snapshot of Ruby the Heartstealer, the 17-year-old Moroccan girl who brought Berlusconi down.
With a cover like that, the last thing one expects is an astute commentary on Italian politics and the eccentric culture that made it possible for such a man to become vastly rich and powerful. But despite an occasional penchant for tabloidese — “a thriving fleshpot,” “a toe-curling kiss-and-tell-tome” — Day demonstrates how much of Berlusconi’s worst behavior would never have come to light in any country that had stricter laws about attorney-client privilege, and against wiretapping and eavesdropping and other prosecutorial violations of privacy. Police interrogations, secret judicial procedures and Berlusconi’s conversations with his lawyers often popped up in the next day’s newspapers. Imagine what delights might have emerged from the Clinton, Bush or Obama White House if executive privilege didn’t exist and every administration official and family member was fair game for phone hackers. You might hear the president confiding to a friend that Angela Merkel is a . . . actually, what Berlusconi said about the German chancellor can be euphemized as “an unbeddable lard bottom.”
A case can be made — and when not chortling over the man’s greed and lasciviousness, Day makes it — that Berlusconi is a predictable product of what Italians view as business and politics as usual. An undersize (5 feet 5 inches), over-confident boy of modest background, Berlusconi worked his way through college, then graduated from selling vacuum cleaners to building and selling apartments, apparently financed by Mafia money. He favored his family and friends and made sure that he kept plenty of malleable lawyers on the payroll. Loyalty and generosity were his most admirable qualities, and as he rose, he lifted his henchmen with him. In a single year he handed out “$15 million in cash to his party friends.”
From his days as a cruise ship singer, he learned the seductive power of show business and beautiful women. Combining high finance with pleasure, he bought up local TV stations and hired starlets in cantilevered bras to brighten the brain-dead shows he broadcast. Only the government-owned RAI was supposed to be national in scope, but Berlusconi ran rings around Italy’s sclerotic bureaucracy. Ultimately he owned three national TV networks, a number of newspapers and magazines, a publishing house, and AC Milan, a successful soccer team. Picture the Clintons as proprietors of this newspaper, Time magazine, the Redskins, NBC, ESPN, CNN and Random House. What fun for Bill and Hillary!
But as the ancient Greeks understood, where there’s hubris, nemesis surely follows, and Berlusconi was hounded by regulatory agencies, tax collectors and magistrates with draconian subpoena powers. He was accused and convicted of numerous crimes but always managed to win on appeal, or to have his sentence vacated because of technicalities, or overturned because the statute of limitations had expired. As recently as July, Berlusconi was given a three-year sentence for bribery, but because of his age he’s unlikely ever to do any time in jail. In an astonishing reckoning, Day writes, “his career legal bill had topped the $250 million mark.”
Where an American pol might pay lip service to the notion of giving back to society while secretly viewing public office as a path to riches, Berlusconi was driven by sheer self-protection. He formed his own party, Forza Italia, and ran for prime minister in order to rewrite laws and keep his cronies and himself out of jail. Of course, he had to persuade millions of Italians to vote for him, but that was simple. With his clutches on half of Italy’s TV networks and many of its journalists, he received constant, fawning coverage and free publicity. In another country, his rumored mob connections and appetite for beautiful women might be impediments, but not in Italy. Similarly, his tax delinquencies and indictments for corruption were perceived as par for the course. A previous prime minister, Bettino Craxi, one of Berlusconi’s faithful boosters, fled the country to avoid prison and died in Tunisia after living large on money that Il Cavaliere, among others, paid him under the table.
In fact, Berlusconi never won an outright majority of voters, but he gamed a system of proportional representation that was tailor-made for someone of his finagling expertise. He had just enough backers to keep him in office, or seriously contending for it, for two decades. With an estimated fortune of $14 billion, he bought off anybody who opposed him and bought up as many nubile bodies as he needed for his “bunga-bunga parties.” He appointed some of these glamorous girls to governmental posts. After all, this is the country where, legend has it, Caligula appointed his horse as a consul. Why not a whore as a cabinet minister?
But while Berlusconi fiddled, Italian magistrates burned to discover evidence and destroy him. European leaders lost patience with his squalid antics and called for regime change. In the end, sex with the underage Ruby the Heartstealer, combined with his flagrant misuse of public office, got him expelled from Parliament and sentenced to community service in a hospice for Alzheimer’s patients, a scene Day describes as something from an absurdist drama by Harold Pinter.
Lest anyone imagine that with Berlusconi gone, Italy has righted the ship of state and is now sailing smoothly into a better future, Day concludes, “Perhaps Italians should start looking in the mirror rather than blaming everything on one brilliant but unscrupulous entrepreneur.”