At the core, the controversial Italian leader, who died this week at 86, wanted to be liked, loved. That explains many of his choices, including the ones that have left a dark mark on Italy's history.
ROME — Silvio Berlusconi was an amicable man – child-like and generous. He told bleak, bewildering, embarrassing jokes, but he did it with such bold, bubbling enthusiasm that you always ended up smiling at his incomprehensible naivety, which was above all his desire to please everyone. I'm convinced it's the key to understanding him: he was a great Casanova of politics, TV, football and business.
Aging horrified him. He thought that having hair was a matter of "respect for others," and that getting a facelift was a matter of decency, tantamount to good manners. He did not come from a well-to-do family. His father was a bank clerk, and, perhaps with some inventiveness, was actually much more, while his mother was a housewife. Berlusconi was a smart kid. He sold his homework; he sang on cruise ships. He put his best qualities to good use. His generosity was cynical but instinctive, and sometimes touching.
From his beginnings building a small company, he would change the country forever. He started with an advertising agency, which became a lever for the Italian government itself.
I was the editor-in-chief of the center-left daily newspaper L'Unità during the years of his outsized power. The climax, the beginning of the end, the Bunga Bunga (sex parties) and more – I was there for it all. I was the first to publish the photos of Mirek Topolanek, former prime minister of the Czech Republic, skinny-dipping at Berlusconi’s Villa Certosa mansion – as well as those of the singer Mariano Apicella on the state plane.
Leader for his people
There was not a day without nagging about his "elegant" parties, his possibly underage guests or the envelopes of cash to the Olgettines – Berlusconi’s mistresses, so-called after the street where many of them lived in housing he paid for – and those pretending to be the granddaughter of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Years later, the new publishers of L'Unità, his enemy, decided it was time to make space for the new Left (which ended up failing miserably). Not only that, but as they proceeded to send the old party leadership to the junkyard, they also saddled the publication's employees with the archaic, structural debt problems the paper had amassed over the decades. I was still the editor-in-chief at the time. Berlusconi called me, one day, to say: "They are despicable. You are a pro; you have personality and talent. You don't deserve this."
As the singer Giorgio Gaber once said, “I don't fear Berlusconi himself – I fear the Berlusconi in me.” Berlusconi was the type of person who embodied a people and served as their champion. He was, in many ways, the Italian archetype. Anyone would have liked to be the guy who started from nothing and dominated the scene. People thought that if he could do it, it was possible. But in reality, that is not the case. You have to be Logan Roy, the protagonist of Succession, or the Murdoch of your time and place.
He was able to protect both his companies and himself.
It began in the 1990s, when he was 58 years old and "going into politics.” Doing so was certainly convenient. He was able to protect both his companies and himself. But we remember how it went: he had generated an empire, thanks also to Bettino Craxi’s Socialist Party.
Silvio Berlusconi in a plane in the 1980s.
Owner of the AC Milan soccer team
The Mammì law, which laid out rules and regulations for television stations, was passed on an ad-hoc basis rather than an ad-personam basis. It was the first of a long series of laws of its kind.
All the roads are mine, he seemed to say.
Berlusconi could now compete with RAI, the public broadcaster. It was the beginning of a new season, in which pleasing the public, and therefore being popular, was synonymous with success.
That meant all means necessary would be used. We did business with those we didn't have to. We were unscrupulous. Crimes were committed, and evidence ignored. The triumphal march continued, even as the political left tried to oppose it.
Yet it was also true that having such an opponent was profitable for plenty of otherwise upstanding politicians and newspapers. He did suffer some defeats, notably at the hands of Romano Prodi, who beat him for the prime minister job in 1996 and 2006. Yet no one was able to generate an equally powerful idea of the world to compete with Berlusconi’s, which told people it was okay to simply pursue their own private interest.
That Berlusconi owned the popular AC Milan soccer team and Einaudi, the publishing house and custodian of the hegemonic culture of opposition, showed that he had no limits. All the roads are mine, he seemed to say, like in Alice in Wonderland.
Silvio Berlusconi with Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush after signing the Rome Declaration, 2002.
End of an era
Berlusconi always wanted to become Italy’s head of state, President of the Republic. He had to leave the title of “Knight” and the role of senator, due to judicial convictions. But as soon as it was possible, he returned to the field. He was key to current Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's success. He tried to aim for definitive redemption, but his allies betrayed him, as in an ancient tragedy. The women he had loved so much, including his fake marriage, abandoned him as well.
Putin has lost a friend.
Putin says he has lost a friend. The local left is now an orphan; we'll see what they will do without an opponent. Starting now, the story changes. It all remains to be written.
There is no other Berlusconi. This is the end of an era. We are watching history unfold. We imagine, even hope, that there is someone up to face today’s challenges – someone with the same talent, but better intentions. It will, however, depend on us, on what we Italians are able to be as a model, based on our desires and disposition, our very nature. Is anyone up to the task?