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Memories Of ‘B’: A Personal And National Obsession Named Silvio Berlusconi

Essay: As Berlusconi steps down as prime minister after 17 years at the center of Italian political life, one columnist who first covered “B” as a sports reporter long before the flamboyant businessman entered politics, tries to make sense of someone as f

video image montage (Seaan)
video image montage (Seaan)
Massimo Gramellini

Only now that he seems to finally be fading…ever so slowly…into the picture album of Italian history, did I find myself shuddering at the realization that I've spent half of my life following B"s every move. The same can be said about many of you, I'm sure.

In the beginning I was a young sports reporter, and he was a successful businessman, best known as the new owner of the AC Milan soccer club.

My first clear memory dates back to 1988. We were in an imposing hall inside the Vatican palaces waiting for Pope John Paul II, who would be arriving to meet the staff and players of AC Milan, recent winners of the Italian league championship.

A bishop approached B. "As we agreed, His Holiness will speak after you," the prelate said.

B had no idea what he was talking about, but smiled politely nonetheless. He then turned to his aides and gave them a quick and memorable tongue-lashing for not having informed him of the protocol. He had just ten minutes to put together a speech. I silently followed him walking along the corridors, curious to see how an important man like this would react in an emergency. I watched him pacing nevously, contorting his mouth and moving his hands. He was getting ready.

When the moment arrived to finally meet the Polish pontiff, B flashed his movie-star smile and began his speech. It would become part of the legend. "Holy Father, at the end of the day, you are like my Milan," he said, pausing, as some of the cardinals present fidgeted nervously. "Like us, you often must play away matches, to bring to the world a winning ideal: the ideal of God."

B had brought with him an enormous entourage, beyond the team: business associates, journalists, hangers-on: the Gruppo, he called it. And he presented each person, one-by-one, to John Paul. "This is Ruud Gullit, Your Holiness. Twelve goals this year, three in the Champions Cup."

He prompted a reaction from the pope when he introduced the editor of one of his magazines, boasting how it outsold the better-known "Panorama" weekly. "Panorama! I always read Panorama!" John Paul exclaimed. That may have been when B decided to buy Panorama's publishing house, Mondadori.

In any case, the papal audience was a tremendous success. I was 26 and already B entertained and frightened me all at once. He was the classic Milanese figure we call a "cumenda," a brash and successful man surrounded by servile aides. He used to arrive by helicopter to A.C. Milan practices. He would take off his coat and toss it behind him: there was always someone ready to catch it.

Berlusconi & Berlusconi

From the beginning there were two B"s: a sunny one, who was always smiling in public; and a mysterious one, who before turning 30 had somehow obtained multi-million dollar loans.

At the time, I was working for the Milan-based newspaper Il Giorno. When I moved to Rome to cover politics for La Stampa, I figured I would never again cross paths with B. Until one November evening, in 1993, when I was sent to the Parliament to get reactions to the rumor that he was considering entering politics. I met Massimo D'Alema, at the time secretary of the Social Democrat Party. "Stop spreading this nonsense. B will never enter politics. He has too many debts." Exactly, I said. D'Alema fired back a scathing glare. "So, I have to repeat myself: he will never enter politics!" I was beginning to understand that his arrival on the political scene was indeed unavoidable.

In the following months, Italy learned every detail about the man who would lead the country, on and off, for nearly 20 years. Italy discovered his ticks, and his titanic ego. In the videos, he spoke with a fake bookshelf in the backdrop, and with a nylon stocking over the lens of the camera to hide his wrinkles. He spread the legend of a paralyzed AC Milan fan who had walked again after hearing his voice. Everybody learned his party's jingle Forza Italia (Go Italy). His quotes were memorable. "Poor people don't exist," he said. "There are just those untrained in living well."

Readers told me to write about something else. But he was everywhere: in politics, soccer, television, advertising, movies, culture (more or less), money. Always him, him, him. One day, I bought a botanical magazine. There was a picture of B cropping the roses in the garden of his villa in Arcore, outside Milan.

Avoiding a B obsession was impossible. A friend and colleague reached his peak during a vacation in 1996. The center-left coalition led by Romano Prodi had just won the elections. We were taking in the evening along the seaside. There were girls, a sparkling moon, slow waves. I was soaking it all in until my friend approached me with a scowl. "You know, I was thinking that if Prodi doesn't make a law (to crack down) on conflict of interest within one week..." he started. "Please! Not now, not here!" I yelled back. But my friend was right. The new cabinet did not make that law. Maybe the ministers were on vacation too. B was going to keep being B.

I started to become personally involved. I wanted to persuade everyone else that B was not a supporter of the free market, but a monopolist who cared only about his business, not about Italy.

I would eventually give up this crusade after a chat with a worker of a moving company. "You know about politics, don't you?," he said to me. "Is it true that B is planning to sell his TV channels?"

"I don't think so, but I hope so," I answered. "We would finally become a normal country, don't you think?"

"Well, if he sells, I won't vote for him anymore," the man said. "If he has his TV, he is rich and doesn't steal…as long as he does his own business, he is forced to do a bit of mine. If he sells his TV, he will become a politician like all the others."

Man-on-street and your mother-in-law

The center-left was always wrong saying that the man of the street was a victim of B. No, he was a wannabe B, just a poorer version.

B"s name was the most cited, the most hated and loved. Think about how many times, my fellow Italians, you have thought about him in the last few years. Surely more than you have thought about your mother-in-law. No one else has divided Italy and Italians the way he has. Once, a guy wrote to the letters box of my column that he had broken up with his girlfriend because she had voted for B. Italy has become a country split in two, a democracy transformed into a neverending referendum on a single person, considered vulgar by one side, vital by the other.

We have grown old together. I went bald, he went and got hair transplants. In 25 years, I changed my mind about almost everything, except B. He still entertains and frightens me, though recently, I've been more frightened for sure.

He has never tried to convert me, though. He thinks I'm an unrecoverable. Once, he heard through a colleague that I was a believer in the free market. "But if he is not a Communist, why is he not with me?"

He sees only black or white. The current world is too complex for him. This is why he is fading away. Without him, I'm sure I will get bored sometimes. I will also have to work more. I will have to go back to covering so many different people: a politician, a businessman, the president of a soccer team, a carnival salesman, a comedian, a playboy. Before, I had all of them in just one person.

Read the original article in Italian

photo - Seaan

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