What was Silvio Berlusconi thinking, when he described the newly-elected Barack Obama as ‘young, handsome, and suntanned’, during a press conference in the Kremlin on Thursday? If Russian President Dmitry Medvedev knew, his face was giving nothing away, sitting impassively beside the grinning Italian.
There are two different perspectives, in Italy, regarding the Prime Minister’s regular gaffes. The first, and probably the one that is most favoured by the international press (who have largely ignored his Obama comments), is the ‘buffoon’ school of thought. It takes Berlusconi at face value: the ex-cruise-ship-crooner, convinced of his own charm, stumbles into trouble whenever placed in front of an international context. Sexist, crass, and racist to boot, the only reaction to his comments tends to be incredulity that the Italians have voted him prime minister three times.
There is a second school of thought, though – advanced by, amongst others, Umberto Eco – that suggests there’s more than meets the eye to Berlusconi’s ‘comic’ moments. This approach requires looking The other way when Berlusconi speaks, or rather looking elsewhere – off stage as it were. It’s an approach that suggests Berlusconi’s comic timing may be out, but his political sense is razor sharp.
An example: When Berlusconi famously declared, in front of the European Parliament, that German Socialist Martin Shultz would have been perfect for the part of a concentration camp Kapo in an upcoming film, the surreal scene dominated the newspapers the next day (04th July 2003) – which just happened to be the day when the controversial measure, the ‘Lodo Maccanico’, came into force in Italy suspending trials for the five highest office holders in the state. An unpopular measure, it recieved scant coverage in Italy’s dailies, occupied as they were with the previous days antics. In the same week his government suffered a humiliating rebel vote, as the Alleanza Nazionale coalition party voted against a government decree to sell off various state buildings. As if all that weren’t enough, his finance minister also came under fire from the then governor of the Bank of Italy, Antonio Fazio. All in all a good week, then, to focus on style – or its absence – rather than the substance of things.
While not discounting the buffoon theory entirely, we can point out the following:
Since his comments on Thursday, any discussion in Italy about President elect Obama has, by necessity, included mention of Berlusconi and not Veltroni
TV news has had something other than the massive student protests against educational reform/cuts decrees to lead with. The student protests haven’t dissappeared completely from the news – to achieve that feat, given the scale of the protests, Berlusconi would probably have had to openly insult Obama, and perhaps molest Angela Merkel for good measure
NO substantial discussion or analysis has been published regarding the actual meeting between the Russian President and Berlusconi, or the fact that Italy has taken a decisively pro-Russian stance at a time when we’re told that there is a new cold war