In Italy, it’s open season on Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s alleged weakness for young models and starlets now that his wife has publicly said, “Basta!” and is seeking a divorce. According to one widely reported story, the prime minister was guest of honor at the18th birthday party of an aspiring model who has said she calls him “papi,” the equivalent of “daddy.” Last week, Berlusconi was also trying to block publication of photographs taken at a party at his home in Sardinia for the Czech prime minister at which several young girls were also present.
Berlusconi’s wife, Veronica Lario, revealed her intention to divorce the prime minister in a letter to the Italian news agency ANSA. Among her complaints: Berlusconi chose “trashy” starlets and television showgirls as his party’s candidates for this week’s European elections. Typically, Berlusconi, who is no newcomer to either controversy or squabbling in the media with his wife, has gone on the offensive. Three days ago, he was on television for over two hours with three leading Italian newspaper editors, denying in long monologues any misconduct and accusing the Italian and foreign media of launching a campaign to discredit him.
Then on Tuesday, Eugenio Scalfari, a highly respected voice on the left, made the inevitable comparison with President Bill Clinton’s problems with Monica Lewinsky. Writing in the newspaper La Repubblica, which he founded and once edited, Scalfari says Clinton also went public with denials of wrongdoing, but in the end was forced to backtrack. To avoid impeachment, Scalfari points out, Clinton admitted to a relationship of sorts with the young White House intern. Sooner or later, Berlusconi will also have to admit to what Scalfari calls “certain circumstances that seem evident and of which other people have direct knowledge.”
But Clinton should have been so lucky! In Berlusconi’s case, many analysts agree that the political fallout from the sleaze factor is likely to be limited. That Berlusconi had a roving eye, and that he and his wife have lived separate lives for years, were both widely known in Italian political and media circles. But there is still reticence about reporting on the private lives of European politicians. So the story is being covered with equal doses of prurience and irritation.
On the one hand, Berlusconi’s flirting — real or imagined — is reported in detail. On the other, there is irritation that Veronica Lario has broken the rules by going public. There have been few references to any connection between personal morals and leadership, such as were voiced in the Clinton case. “One would like not to know anything about a politician except that which concerns the common good,” wrote columnist Barbara Spinelli in the Turin paper La Stampa, “nothing about his nights, vacations, nothing about his yachts, his family, not even about his belief or otherwise in God.”