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The Mogulissimo

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The prime minister is very short (he famously wears lifts). He is very tan. He appears, even in person, retouched. He is not especially attractive, or immediately charismatic. He’s a populist, a purposeful crowd-pleaser (after all, he’s a television guy), but there is no sense that he has a special rapport with the crowd. His after-dinner speech was delivered before dinner because, apparently, he gets nervous when he has to speak—too nervous to sit through dinner.

His base appeal seems most clearly to be that he’s a billionaire—an out-there, immodest billionaire.

He’s a businessman turned folk hero. He’s a person with wealth so great he’s become a type of extraordinary human being.

“With these billionaires, after one minute you just want to hug them,” remarked one of the Italian journalists covering the event, with a mixture of resignation and awe.

There is a mogul charm.

It was in the eighties (whence all moguls come), after a career in real-estate development, that Berlusconi created the first private TV networks in Italy. He hired the most popular star in the country (Mike Bongiorno, the king of the state-TV Italian quiz shows) and imported lots of cheap American programming. Using his ties to then–prime minister Bettino Craxi (resulting in some of the corruption charges later filed against him), Berlusconi turned his one network into three. A nation that heretofore had almost no broadcast advertising suddenly got drunk on the stuff. The cash flowed. These were undreamed-of margins—on a par with those in the halcyon days of the three American networks (only in this situation, Berlusconi owned all three). Publishing followed. As did sports, retailing, insurance.

Then, in 1993, he started a political party called Forza Italia, which is the cheer Italians scream at soccer games (as if there were a Go America party). Suddenly—almost overnight—politics and business and media in Italy all came together. One man, unmindful of the very concept of conflict of interest, and on the basis of great sums of money and some perpetual, indefatigable, never-give-up salesmanship, had accomplished this historic and ultimate consolidation.

He’s a promoter personality. His shamelessness is part of his appeal—part of his marketing. It’s a media thing.

Certainly, this is one of the reasons (along with his dumb remarks, corruption, power grabs, and devotion to Bush) that the rest of Europe can’t abide him: He’s an American-style business guy.

It’s a terribly unsubtle and unredeeming me, me, me.

Buy, buy, buy.

It’s free enterprise run amok—possibly more amok than it’s ever run.

From the American view, on the other hand, it seems like an Italian thing. He’s exploited a unique systemic weakness in business and politics and achieved a kind of pervasive control, a perfect monopoly—he has the dominant personality, the overwhelming media share, and an electoral lock—that could not, theoretically, happen in other advanced democracies.

But this is the elephant in the banquet room at the Plaza: Berlusconi may be a joke, but a plausible one.

Berlusconi is the comic-book version of mogulhood. The magazine that everybody got at dinner—versions of which every person in Italy has gotten at one time or another—is the exaggerated (or fully realized) version of what every mogul and egomaniac and self-promoter is trying to do: Put his brand on everything.

Control it all. Grab it all.

If there’s a tone problem here, it’s only because, interestingly, the Italians may be more advanced than we are. They (or their mogul) may have proceeded to a level of unlimited money and unlimited media and unlimited self-promotion that we have not yet reached, but that we, or one of our moguls, will.

Berlusconi, like Mussolini, may be the harbinger.


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