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Stand aside, Joe Biden. The American Vice President-elect may have made a few verbal missteps during the campaign, but the title of Prince of Gaffe belongs
unassailably Silvio Berlusconi. Last week's election victory of Barack Obama and his garrulous running mate offered the Italian Prime Minister another
chance to prove he is the world leader with the loosest lips. Speaking in
Moscow alongside Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Berlusconi flashed a
Cheshire-cat grin as he listed the reasons that Obama would be an
effective leader: "He's young, handsome, and even has a good tan." (See pictures of Barack Obama's campaign behind the scenes.)
Berlusconi's apparent attempt at humor sparked charges of racism from
political opponents, though most inside and outside Italy simply shook (or
buried) their heads at the terrible timing both historic and comedic
of such a remark in the wake of Obama's election as the first black
U.S. President. As he's done before when accused of stepping out of line on
the world stage, the 72-year-old billionaire lashed out at anyone who
criticized him or called for an apology as "imbeciles," insisting his
comment was meant to be "cute."
On Sunday, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, the Italian-born wife of the French
President said Berlusconi's comment made her "pleased to have become
French." Otherwise, however, the incident has predictably blown over within
diplomatic circles. Berlusconi's aides said that he'd received a friendly
call over the weekend from Obama, who was making the telephone rounds with
world leaders, and that the Moscow comments were not mentioned. What could
But the question lingers: What drives this gaffeur from Milan to continue an
unbroken series of comments guaranteed to offend someone? What, for example,
was the Italian Prime Minister thinking three years ago when he credited his
own "playboy" powers for persuading Finland's female prime minister to agree
that a key European Union agency be accorded to Italy? And what prompted him
to compare a German member of the European Parliament to a Nazi prison
guard, or to flash two fingers of the cuckold behind the head of the Spanish foreign minister during the family photo at a
European summit in 2002.
Berlusconi's propensity for crossing the rhetorical line remains one of the
central mysteries of his rise to become the most influential Italian
politician of his generation. At times, one sees that the former real estate
and media mogul is aching to be considered a leading statesman, with all the
gravitas that entails. But all too often, it seems, he just can't resist
another juvenile jape.
Interpretations among those in the know in Italy vary. Some say the man
known as Il Cavaliere sees the world as his personal stage, simply letting
it all hang out in public like other super-rich and powerful people do in
private, convinced that his humor and Italian charm will win over the world.
Others discern a calculation in his off-the-cuff quips: to divide his
opponents, to keep allied pretenders to his throne off balance, and most of
all to simply keep the spotlight on himself. By now, having been elected
Prime Minister three times, most see his occasional outrageousness as an
integral part of his leadership style, a kind of imperious one-man show.
"Sometimes it's spontaneous," says one insider from Italy's center-left
opposition who admires Berlusconi's political agility even as he cringes at
his public antics. "But sometimes I think he wakes up and says: 'I'm going
to say something outlandish today. They'll see I'm still with it, that I
don't miss a beat.'" (See pictures of Italy.)
As one of the last remaining loyal allies of George W. Bush, Berlusconi may
worry that his influence could wane under an Obama presidency. And he may
reason that the only response is to try to be the most 'simpatico'(likeable) ally on the world stage, even if it means a few jokes that backfire.
Antonio Amadori, an experiential psychologist and author of a book on
Berlusconi, Mi Consenta (Allow Me), believes the Prime Minister is
ultimately driven by a desire to "completely fill" the public consciousness.
"Asking why he does things is like asking why Jerry Lewis does things," he
says. "This is who he is. He is theatrical and believes in his own charisma
and abilities to improvise."
In fact, Amadori wonders if the arrival of Obama, and the prospective of
such a fascinating and indeed young and handsome figure on the
world stage, has thrown Berlusconi for a loop. "Obama has an extraordinary
physical and scenic presence. You can imagine Berlusconi's jealousy," he
Nevertheless, with his advancing age, toothy smiles, and acknowledged
struggle with hair loss, Berlusconi still will have a counterpart to turn to
in Washington: Vice President Joe Biden. They may both have to resort to
gaffes to get a piece of the limelight.