The Lord's Anointed
June 20, 2003 | More from Don Murray
Parliaments can be so useful, especially if you're a billionaire in a bit of trouble.
On the evening of June 18, Italy's Chamber of Deputies obligingly moved the legal goalposts for one Silvio Berlusconi. This was hardly fortuitous; Berlusconi is not only a billionaire, he's also the prime minister of Italy.
The bill in question shields the sitting prime minister, the president, the speakers of the two houses of parliament and the chief justice of the country's highest court from prosecution while they are in office. The Chamber of Deputies voted 302-17 in favour of the bill; the Italian Senate had already passed it.
It was left to opposition MPs, before they walked out in disgust, to point out that only one of the five on the list was actually facing criminal proceedings: Berlusconi. A spokesman for Berlusconi's governing party blandly replied that the bill "reinforces our democracy." Berlusconi was more direct. The new law was necessary to protect leaders against what he called the "communist threat" posed by certain of Italy's judges.
What, in fact, Berlusconi was facing was an impending verdict in a a trial for bribery.
He was accused of bribing judges in a 1980s corporate takeover battle before he entered politics. This was a serious case, lasting three years; one of his co-accused, Cesare Previti, was found guilty. Previti was once defence minister in a Berlusconi cabinet.
How did Berlusconi respond to the challenge? In a parliamentary fashion. His quiescent majority began by passing a law allowing defendants to appeal for their trials to be moved to different locations in front of different judges if they believed the first judges to be biased.
Berlusconi promptly invoked the new law to appeal against the judges in his case; the Italian Supreme court threw it out. That's when Berlusconi's minions began working on the immunity law.
Then, just a day before that law was passed, he marched into the court in Milan and made a theatrical statement. He compared the prosecution to a murder trial, a very flawed murder trial. "There is no body here, there is no murder weapon, there is no motive," he shouted at the judges, waving his arms as television cameras rolled. "All there is is a fantasy cooked up by someone who invented this theory of corruption. I'm having tonnes of mud thrown at me."
Then he simply left, saying he was too busy to answer questions. He would only be cross-examined in his prime-ministerial offices but he did promise to return to the court the following week. That was an empty promise; the court case is expected to collapse in the wake of the new law.
All of that seems astonishing, but, considered in the context of Berlusconi's career, it was just another day at the office. This is a man who controls assets of $15 billion, who owns all of Italy's private television networks and several major newspapers, who owns one of its top soccer teams, who created his own political party and swept into power in 1994 promising to clean up the country, which was beset by scandal, and relaunch Italy's economy.
Seven months later he was forced to resign. But in 2001 his party, Forza Italia, roared back, and now, with its allies, has a majority in parliament.
His march to millions began in murkiness. He studied law, and sang on cruise ships wearing a straw hat to pay for his studies. He started a small construction company. Then, in the early 1970s, his company built a garden suburb of 3,500 houses and apartments called Milan 2 in marshland near the airport.
Where did he get the capital? The whispers started that it was laundered money, that he had links to the mafia. Those became headlines 30 years later when a mafia boss told Italian prosecutors that mafia leaders opened up channels to Berlusconi's party as soon as it was founded in 1993. Berlusconi said it was part of an organized smear campaign against him.
As his wealth grew, so did his ego - and his legal troubles. Berlusconi signalled his intention of getting into politics with this sentence: "I am tired of being Silvio Berlusconi: I want a heroic life." When he ran for re-election in 2001, he announced: "there is no one on the world stage who can compete with me." He has claimed to be "the Lord's anointed."
The Lord's anointed had, by this time, got himself convicted of false accounting, bribing the tax police and tax fraud. In each case, he was let off on appeal or on technicalities.
If there is mystery about the origins of his wealth, his rise to power is less mysterious. He packaged and sold himself and his party like corn flakes. His popular television networks ran news pieces about him that resembled advertisements for him. The novelist and sociologist Umberto Eco said Berlusconi was the first to understand the collapse of ideology in Italy and its replacement by mass media.
Eco called it Berlusconi's "masterpiece of synthesis": the combination of business, TV, marketing and politics. Others called it flagrant conflict of interest. Berlusconi solemnly promised to put his businss empire at arm's length once in power. He has done nothing of the kind.
Berlusconi is intensely theatrical and it is this ingredient that has helped him to dominate Italian politics. He goes everywhere with his own TV crew. He appears tanned and wearing makeup. He is short but a box is always available to stand on when he speaks. He smiles broadly; his harangues are often humorous. He has intuitively grasped what Luigi Barzini, author of The Italians, called "the importance of spectacle."
Berlusconi's style embodies the lessons contained in a book written by another Italian five centuries ago. He was Baldassar Castiglione and his book was Il Libro del Cortegiano or The Book of the Courtier. As Barzini puts it: "He merely codified what everyone more or less knew then and would still know centuries later."
Here is Castiglione's advice to the man of power on how to deal with danger: "Where the Courtier is at skirmish, or assault, or battle, he ought to work the matter wisely in separating himself from the multitude, and undertake the notable and bold feats which he has to do, with as little company as he can, and in sight of noble men that be of most estimation."
Now think of Berlusconi before the judges in Milan: a man alone and accused, sweeping in to denounce the whole proceedings and then sweeping out without a question being asked. And that night his television networks showed his heroic skirmish to the new nobles of Italy: the voters.
This was the triumph of the Courtier, a triumph of style over substance. It is, for the moment, the story of his government.