Everyone at the Anti-Defamation League dinner for Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi last Tuesday—at which he was given the organization’s Distinguished Statesman award—was handed a hundred-plus-page magazine memorializing his life and times. The fanzine testimonial—a kind of individualized Us Weekly prepared by the Berlusconi media empire—with its picture of the Italian leader in a field of flowers, and with his horoscope, along with many pictures of his mother, and with hundreds of pictures of Berlusconi himself (many per page), suggested either a large tone problem or a cult of personality and level of narcissism way beyond anything that exists elsewhere in Western politics and government today.
Now, there may not be any mogul, in the history of moguls, who’s achieved the mogul proportions of Berlusconi. He created the independent-television industry in Italy. He monopolized it, making for himself one of the world’s greatest fortunes. Then, in his ultimate feat, he took control of the government that would otherwise have regulated his business (and that had indicted him on numerous corruption charges). In that role, he has been one of the staunchest Bush allies in Europe, supporting the war in Iraq and the administration’s moves in the Middle East. Hence, the ADL award.
Still, even given his great wealth and great power and support of American adventures abroad, nobody outside of Italy really takes him seriously. He tends to be seen as either a uniquely (or stereotypically) Italian figure, lacking some elemental Anglo-Saxon business and political restraint (he’s a particular bête noire of the very Anglo-Saxon Economist, which seems to regard him as the dumbest and most perfidious man in all Europe), or as some frightening and embarrassing and inexplicable and comic aberration of wealth and media.
Indeed, his award from the Anti-Defamation League may perhaps have been helped along by his off-the-cuff anti-Islamic slurs, and by his foot-in-mouth anti-German asides (and seems to have been only slightly checked by his history of spontaneous anti-Semitic remarks).
His own evocation, a few weeks ago, of Mussolini as a despot who wasn’t, all things considered, so bad (Mussolini, Berlusconi declared, never killed anyone—he just sent his enemies on vacation), reinforced both his ridiculousness as well as the Italian stereotype.
In a sense, Mussolini is to fascist despots what Berlusconi is to media moguls. Mussolini exaggerated the despot’s role in ways that made him both successful and, to many, comic—as well as frightening. Berlusconi is a product of similar exaggeration. We don’t take him seriously, but he defines a sui generis order of accomplishment.
Compared to Berlusconi, Michael Bloomberg, for instance, is so much flotsam and jetsam.
“Yes, it was shocking to give Berlusconi the Distinguished Statesman award, but harmless.”
The Mussolini remark was the immediate background to last week’s dinner, and many people assumed the ADL would cancel the award presentation or quickly find a new Distinguished Statesman to replace the revisionist Italian prime minister. The alternative was to face a publicity nightmare. Other Jewish organizations (never very fond of the ADL), along with various Nobel laureates and the New York Times, rushed to express their stern disapproval.
The ADL, however, and its director, Abe Foxman (as confident and heedless in his views as Berlusconi is in his), went ahead with the dinner and the presentation of the award with determination and even verve—which quickly turned into a publicity coup. The ADL’s dinner was suddenly one of the highlights of the U.N. week. And, what’s more, it put the ADL at the epicenter of political and media power. The ADL had not only Berlusconi but various of his mogul brethren—Rupert Murdoch, Len Riggio, Harvey Weinstein—to celebrate him.
There was a sense among the attendees of the dinner of a certain naughtiness. Yes, it was sort of shocking to give Berlusconi this award, but harmless. And it was certainly less boring to give it to Berlusconi than to the boring people who usually get these awards. Also, he might say something else outrageous—which would really be fun.
And there was obvious humor in the situation, which you don’t usually find at such stodgy and earnest benefit dinners.
The combination, for instance, of Jews and Italians was funny (“Italians really don’t know anything about Jews,” confided one Italian reporter). The contrast in the suits alone was funny (Italians, very good suits; Jews, pretty bad suits). Then the fact that the Italians seemed to regard the ADL as an august global Jewish organization—instead of the gadfly of American Jewish groups and the personal platform of Abe Foxman—was one of those amusing discrepancies that happen in the world of mutual self-promotion. (Mainstream Jewish organizations are always wringing their hands about how much press the less well-endowed and less influential ADL gets for itself.)
Maria Bartiromo—part of the ADL’s attempt at ethnic reaching out—was the mistress of ceremonies.
The Jews were giving the award, but they’d recruited an Italian-American to make the real Italians feel at home (Bartiromo crucified the pronunciation of B’nai B’rith). In fact, Bartiromo proceeded to give the kind of sixth-grade speech about her Italian heritage that makes actual Italians cringe and express puzzlement at this weird race of people known as Italian-Americans. Still, she was very effusive in her praise of the prime minister, possibly not just in her role as an Italian-American but as, too, the Money Honey (while not widely covered on CNBC, Berlusconi is certainly a quintessential story of the boom years) and as a media honcho herself (she introduced Murdoch as one of her colleagues).
Likewise, Barnes & Noble’s Len Riggio was there as someone with an Italian name, but also as a media mogul and do-gooder on the world stage. Or, perhaps more exactly, as a do-gooder who is not always invited onto the world’s great stages (hence getting stuck on this one).
Murdoch was there as a peer—perhaps Berlusconi’s only real peer. They stood mogul-to-mogul against the world. Of note, though, Murdoch had just entered the Italian market in a substantial way with his satellite company Sky Italia, which would compete with Berlusconi’s terrestrial networks. He needed the support of the prime minister and so would honor him at the same time he was, of course, setting out to bury him.
Harvey Weinstein, involved in various Italian film-distribution and financing deals, even got a chance to show excerpts from some of Miramax’s Italian projects as well as to praise Berlusconi as a great statesman.
The personal agendas, as befitting a gathering more of entrepreneurs (Foxman himself is a kind of entrepreneur—constantly flogging his organization) than of heads of state, seemed quite out in the open.
And yet, you could not escape the elephant in the room.
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.