It was the gaffe heard around the globe. Last November, just two days after Barack Obama's historic election victory, the world's collective jaw dropped when Silvio Berlusconi quipped that the next U.S. President was "young, handsome and even has a good tan." Though the Italian Prime Minister refused to apologize for the failed attempt at humor, Obama and his aides gave Berlusconi a pass. The incoming President was not going to be sidetracked by a diplomatic incident with a man already notorious as a loose cannon. Berlusconi kept his place that week on Obama's initial round of phone calls to world leaders, with the "tan" remark firmly off the agenda and both sides hailing strong relations between the key transatlantic allies.
Strangely, it is Berlusconi who has not let the incident rest. He called his critics "imbeciles," saying the remark was meant as a compliment. "We'd all like to be tanned like Naomi Campbell and Obama," he said two weeks after the original one-liner. He has made other references to it in the months since.
And then on Sunday, he dropped the abbronzato bomb again. Having returned from the G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh, he told supporters in Milan that he carried greetings from "someone tan, what's his name? Barack Obama!" Not satisfied, he continued, "You will not believe it, but the two of them went together to get some sun at the beach, because the wife is also tanned."
The conventional wisdom in Italy, in both press and political circles, seems to be that it's just Berlusconi being Berlusconi. The latest quip got only passing notice from Italy's center-left opposition, which is more focused on Berlusconi's ongoing sex scandal. Even the leading leftist daily, La Repubblica, referred to the remarks as the latest "Berlusconi Show."
But that's telling in itself. In many ways, mainstream Italian society is several generations behind the rest of the West when it comes to race. In supposedly polite company, one can still hear the word negro, (pronounced neh-grow) which essentially translates to the N word. A cleaning woman is often generically referred to as a "Filippina." Northern Italians joke that darker-skinned southerners are "Moroccans."
Unlike some of his political allies, Berlusconi has never seemed to suffer from mean-spirited racism. Still, his eagerness to continue cracking racial jokes shows how outdated he and a big chunk of Italian society are. The lack of outrage from ordinary Italians compounds the crime.
Does that mean it's up to the White House to tell Berlusconi basta? During the 2008 campaign, Republican political consultant Grover Norquist was lambasted by Obama supporters for describing the candidate as "John Kerry with a tan." But when it comes to Silvio, the Administration seems to want to play it cool. The U.S. embassy in Rome declined this week to comment on the latest quip. Asked Wednesday by TIME about the remarks, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said, "There are far bigger issues in the world than this."
That's true. And no doubt the issues of any perceived political incorrectness and potential racial reverberations are trickier to handle when the offender is the leader of a NATO ally. But Berlusconi's prominence is the point, and as the first black leader of the most powerful nation on earth, Obama is seen as a model by many countries struggling to integrate people of different races and religions.
In Italy, where immigration has skyrocketed in the past decade, racism is becoming a front-burner issue. Aly Baba Faye, regional director in Rome of the Anti-Racism Observatory, says the Prime Minister's comments are indicative of attitudes in Italy and unhelpful in changing prejudices. "Berlusconi thinks he's funny, but he's not," says Faye, an Italian citizen who emigrated from Senegal 30 years ago. "For one world leader to talk about the skin color of another is utterly disrespectful and sets a bad example for ordinary folk." Faye says Berlusconi's comments make it more likely that people on the street in Rome will make a crack about the color of his or his children's skin.
Faye, who was head of Italy's first pro-Obama initiative during the 2008 campaign, says he understands the President's not wanting to turn the issue into a diplomatic affair. "But someone has to make him stop. Maybe just a private note through the embassy?" Or maybe the next time he sees Berlusconi, Obama himself can lean over and say, "Hey Silvio, you know the tan jokes? Basta."
With reporting by Michael Scherer / Washington