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The Prime Minister Of WTF

Americans who watched the bizarre clip from last week’s G-20 Summit of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi shouting, “Meester Obamaa, Meester Obamaa!” to the evident irritation of the British Queen--and who were shocked at his infamous joke about Obama’s being “tall, handsome, and suntanned”--might be wondering: What’s up with this guy? Does he have an Obama problem?

Just to put everyone’s mind at rest, the quick answer is: No, he does this to everyone! Or something equally bizarre. Only a few days after the “Meester Obama” episode, Berlusconi embarrassed German Chancellor Angela Merkel by emerging from his limousine for an official visit while talking on his cell phone as she waited on a red carpet to greet him. He turned his back on her and talked for several minutes as she stood there with her hand out, until, finally, with obvious annoyance, she gave up and went inside.

Things like this have been happening since Berlusconi first became prime minister in 1994. At one of his first international meetings, he made the “sign of the horns,” or of the cuckold, over the head of the Spanish foreign minister while posing for a group photograph. When people objected, he insisted it was a “friendly” gesture meant to create a sense of camaraderie. In 2001 he referred to a German member of the European parliament as a concentration camp kapo; in 2002 he called the Danish prime minister Anders Rasmussen the most handsome politician in Europe and suggested he might make a good match for Berlusconi’s own wife, who at the time was rumored to be having an affair with the then-mayor of Venice, Massimo Cacciari. “He’s much better looking than Cacciari,” Berlusconi said at a press conference. “I’ll explain later,” he added to the puzzled Rasmussen.

After negotiations on agricultural policy in 2005, he remarked that he had used all of his “arts as a playboy” in wringing concessions for Italy from the female prime minister of Finland, a woman not known for her physical beauty. When Berlusconi was acting as the president of the European Union two years earlier, he shocked a gathering of heads of state by suggesting that they lighten up the mood by talking about “soccer and women.” He then intimated to Gerhard Schroder, the oft-married former German chancellor, that he might want to tell them about women.

Is there a logic to what might seem like a strange form of Tourette’s syndrome? His inappropriate remarks are the behavior of a man so powerful in his own country, whose private wealth and public power are so fused, that he makes no distinction between private and public behavior. And he doesn’t have to. He’s surrounded by employees and flunkees who guffaw at his jokes and praise his every utterance--and by journalists who never ask difficult or embarrassing questions. He behaves at an international press conference as if he were at his own dinner table. Indeed, he is more comfortable entertaining international guests at his fabulous villa in Sardinia (again merging pubic and private), where heads of state and TV starlettes can mingle--and Berlusconi can say whatever passes through his head without fear of public embarrassment.

He is also so used to the near-total control of the Italian press that he reacts with shock and anger when the international press fails to treat him with similar deference. Berlusconi’s “kapo” remark, which was broadcast around the world, was not shown on the main state broadcasting channel. The same thing happened recently, when Berlusconi made a comment that seemed to indicate that rape was a natural by-product of male libido: “To stop rape, we would have to assign a policeman to every pretty girl in Italy.”

Part of Berlusconi’s poor performance abroad also stems from his desire to dominate every situation, and his frustration at having to take a backseat at international gatherings. When Berlusconi explained that he would not be attending Obama’s inauguration ceremony in Washington, he made a revealing remark: “I am not an extra in a movie cast; I’m a lead actor.” Berlusconi is clearly irked that Obama, a newcomer with only a couple of million dollars in net worth, is a much bigger star.

So, how does Berlusconi continue to be so popular in Italy, as both his reelection last spring and his current poll numbers suggest? Well, his political savvy at home and cluelessness abroad--seeming contradictions--are actually closely related. His comment about lightening up negotiations over the European constitution by talking about “soccer and women” seemed undignified to his fellow politicians, but is part of Berlusconi’s populist appeal in Italy. After all, “soccer and women” are favored topics of conversation at the corner bar in most Italian towns, and Berlusconi’s reputation as soccer team owner and celebrity linked by rumor to numerous beautiful women is part of what has allowed the country’s richest man to develop a genuine working-class appeal.

That Italy not only accepts but also approves of Berlusconi is a symptom of a country in profound crisis, with a stagnant economy, a political class its people loathe, and a weak opposition that has failed to offer a credible alternative to Berlusconi. His off-color remarks are seen by some of his supporters as a form of authenticity, the opposite of the careful statements of typical politicians, and therefore reinforce Berlusconi’s image as an anti-politician. And unlike most of his rivals, who have to pretend to appreciate and understand popular culture, Berlusconi possesses an unerring feeling for the lowest common denominator, which served him extremely well in his career as a television tycoon and continues to do so now. He genuinely loves cheesy sitcoms and bathroom humor.

As for Obama, he and Berlusconi should get alone just fine. It is hard to imagine his locker room talk going over especially well with Obama, but Berlusconi also recognizes a star when he sees one and is eager to attach himself to it (even if he’d still prefer top billing). And, in fact, Berlusconi emerged from their meeting enthusiastic: “He confirmed my expectations, making an excellent impression of wisdom, clarity and, I must say, humility.” Something no one has accused Berlusconi of.

Alexander Stille is the author, among other books, of The Sack of Rome: Money Media Celebrity = Power = Silvio Berlusconi (Penguin 2006). He is a professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.

By Alexander Stille