The curtain has closed — for now — on one of the strangest yet longest-lasting shows in the world, the political career of Silvio Berlusconi, who has dominated Italian life for 17 years while playing an astonishing number of roles: TV tycoon, soccer team owner, prime minister, criminal defendant, international playboy.Berlusconi, also a salesman extraordinaire and supreme media illusionist, rose to power conjuring visions of unprecedented prosperity for Italy’s masses. He declared himself the “best prime minister” as well as the world’s greatest leader. So it seems fitting that Berlusconi, who promised so much and delivered so little, should now exit stage right, leaving behind a scene of moral and financial devastation with his country verging on default.
The first (but not last) media magnate to run a country, Berlusconi has been dedicated to the principle that perception is reality — that if you make people believe something, it becomes true. But reality has intruded: Years of economic stagnation, of reforms promised and not enacted, a national debt exceeding 120 percent of gross domestic product and, finally, spiraling interest rates have caused the illusion to come crashing down. Perception is crucial to financial markets, but, in the end, it must be tied to some underlying economic facts. And so this political confidence man failed because he lost the trust of the financial markets and Europe’s chancelleries.
In the past few years, Berlusconi became synonymous with scandal because of hisrelentless womanizing, wild parties at the presidential palace, cavorting with paid prostitutes and underage girls, and a string of criminal trials and corruption cases. He made off-color remarks at international gatherings, referring to president-elect Barack Obama as “suntanned” and bragging about using his “playboy” skills to get concessions from Finland’s president. All this has made it tempting for foreigners to smile, shake their heads and say, “Only in Italy!”
Yet, while Berlusconi is a typical product of a certain side of Italian life, that easy explanation misses something important. He is a retrograde figure, embodying old-fashioned corruption, sexism and machismo. But he is also an entirely modern, or postmodern, political creature. Money, celebrity and pure entertainment value are part of politics everywhere. Operating in a country with few checks and balances, Berlusconi was able to combine the vast wealth of a Bill Gates, the media monopoly of a Rupert Murdoch and the fame of an Arnold Schwarzenegger, mixed with control of the White House and both houses of Congress, to become a 21st-century Citizen Kane.
Berlusconi’s extraordinary success came from harnessing an old system of power to new forms of political communication. Since he entered politics, media owners have come to power in two other countries, Thailand and Chile. Chilean President Sebastián Piñera followed the Berlusconi formula almost exactly, heading a TV empire and buying a major stake in a popular soccer club.
Berlusconi’s political career began as the Cold War and its reigning ideologies were disappearing. The Christian Democratic Party and its allies, with the help of the Catholic Church, had governed Italy for 45 years and kept the Communist Party out of power. But with no more communism to fight, this alliance lost much of its rationale, and the corruption that had been tolerated in the name of anti-communism suddenly seemed intolerable. By 1993, the Christian Democrats and their key allies had dissolved, leaving nearly half of the Italian electorate without a political party. Berlusconi filled that void. He offered to protect the patronage relationships of the old system, of which he was a principal beneficiary, but in a new way.
Berlusconi understood that Italians were more interested in sports and entertainment than in politics — and he headed the three largest private TV networks and the country’s most successful soccer team, A.C. Milan. He invented a party — and even wrote its anthem — with no real ideology other than a kind of generic patriotism, calling it Forza Italia, the popular chant of the national soccer team.
With astonishing boldness, Berlusconi transformed his enormous media and financial empire into the country’s largest political machine. Mutual-fund brokers turned their clients into party organizers, A.C. Milan soccer clubs became Forza Italia clubs, advertising executives got screen tests and turned into candidates, and his three national networks were his personal platform.
He announced his candidacy in 1994 with a video broadcast on his networks that showed him in his study. Using media access that only an incumbent prime minister would usually have, Berlusconi created the illusion that he was already the nation’s leader — and soon that illusion became reality.
He modeled himself on both Ronald Reagan, copying his optimism and “government is the problem” rhetoric, and Ross Perot, the entrepreneur anti-politician. When he was questioned sharply by a prominent economist during a TV debate in 1994, Berlusconi cut him off, saying: “Try winning a national soccer championship before you try to challenge me.” It was an absurd non sequitur but convincing to many Italian viewers. After all, Berlusconi had won several national and international championships, hadn’t he?
Berlusconi initially sold himself as a free-marketer, an Italian Margaret Thatcher, promising to cut through Italy’s hypertrophic bureaucracy, reduce government interference in the market and revitalize the nation’s economy. His supporters failed to appreciate that Berlusconi was a monopolist in various industries with markets that were anything but free. His innumerable conflicts of interest were not simply an ethical problem but a practical one. For example, Italy has one of the lowest rates of Internet penetration in Europe; this harms the country’s ability to participate in the information economy but protects Berlusconi’s TV stations.
During Berlusconi’s years in office, Italy’s average per capita GDP growth was close to zero and the worst among major industrialized nations. Italy plummeted by almost every international economic and social measure: from economic competitiveness and freedom to transparency, press freedom and gender equality.
Berlusconi was reelected in 2008 with a huge majority in Parliament and could have reorganized the Italian economy had he wanted to, but almost all of his energies in office were spent solving personal problems. He got his company executives, who had been indicted for corruption, elected to Parliament so they could enjoy immunity from prosecution, and he did the same for his and their defense lawyers so they could rewrite criminal justice laws and get everyone off the hook. His former executives serving in Parliament wrote legislation for the clear benefit of his business. He interfered with the state broadcasting company, his chief competitor, hiring and firing network heads and trying (and sometimes succeeding) to shut down TV programs that dared to be critical of him.
The lack of any check on his power fed Berlusconi’s sense of omnipotence: He began putting the women he was sleeping with or wanted to sleep with up for political office — the ultimate confusion of public and private power. Berlusconi became a prisoner of his own propaganda machine. He was so good at running for office that he didn’t think it was necessary to actually do anything in office. He liked hobnobbing with world leaders but was bored by the humdrum business of making and enacting policy. What mattered was controlling popular perceptions.
He made a great show in 2008 of getting the garbage off the streets of Naples, but, because he failed to deal with the city’s underlying waste problems, the garbage was back within several months. When an earthquake devastated the city of L’Aquila in 2009, he moved with great speed to provide housing and declared the reconstruction a spectacular success. A year later, the city’s residents, still unable to return to their homes, broke down police barriers around the earthquake zone and discovered that the old city was in ruins; no reconstruction work had actually been done.
Despite his reputation as a tough businessman, Berlusconi has no stomach for confrontation and painful decisions, and he seeks to protect his popularity above all. When the lurid details of his personal life began coming out, he proposed a draconian law that would make it nearly impossible to carry out wiretaps and illegal to publish them except when material was introduced at trial. At the same time, his media companies created a series of personal and sexual scandals for other leaders — using means that would have violated his own law — to distract attention from Berlusconi’s troubles.
Again, he seemed convinced that it was all a problem of controlling perception. Until very recently, he blamed Italy’s recession on the country’s economic press, which he said was publishing depressing stories that were keeping people from spending. But as the Italian economy spiraled deeper into crisis, the real facts of the situation interfered.
Even in our postmodern world, reality still matters — at least some of the time.
Alexander Stille is the author of “The Sack of Rome: Media + Money + Celebrity = Power = Silvio Berlusconi” and is a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.