When Treasury Minister Emilio Colombo became Premier last August after one of Italy's chronic Cabinet imbroglios, a cynical Roman politician ventured a prediction: "Colombo can't last through autumn. This may be precisely why he will." What he meant was that after five governments in 27 months, warring factions in the four-party governing coalition might let things ride for a while. If Colombo, too, were to topple, the result might be expensive and uncertain national elections.
After six months on the job, Colombo, who flies off this week for a five-day U.S. visit that will include a White House conference with President Nixon, has done more than merely hang on. Some Italians are already saying, perhaps prematurely, that he may be the best man in the job since the late Alcide de Gasperi, Italy's premier Premier. Others say that the ascetic, soft-spoken Christian Democrat, whom leftists call "the lay cardinal" for his piety and political skill, has accomplished a political miracle by not only surviving but actually making some progress.
II Boom. Colombo came to the job with a reputation of being an "uomo preparata" (competent man), a graceful but serious no-nonsense bachelor of 50. His first achievement was to settle, at least temporarily, the bickering over patronage among the four center-left coalition partnersSocialists, Social Democrats, Christian Democrats and Republicans. Next, he kept parliamentary peace by allowing a free vote on Italy's controversial divorce bill. Colombo throttled filibusters by his own right-wingers; in return, Communist Leader Enrico Berlinguer shut off anti-Vatican outbursts from the far left.
Colombo, who is credited with executing the plans charted by Bank of Italy Governor Guido Carli for il Boom, also drew up legislation to get the country moving again after a slowdown caused by a wave of strikes. He moved to improve conditions in overcrowded universities and secondary schools. Two weeks ago, he won trade union backing for additional bills improving housing and medical care.
"We are living through a crisis of growth and development in Italy today," Colombo told TIME Correspondent James Bell during an interview in Rome's Chigi Palace last week. "Many structures of the state have not kept pace with these transformations and today appear to be insufficient." The Premier blamed the lethargic structures of government, which he is trying to change, for allowing bloody street battles to erupt all over Italy in recent months between right-and left-wing extremists. Colombo called out the army as well as the police to quell what he called "these infantile and dangerous attempts by extremists" of both wings to unsettle the center-left coalition. At the same time, in a rare move for an Italian Premier, he met privately with protesters to hear their demands for social improvements.