Berlusconi's PR triumph after earthquake
Published 10/04/2009 | 03:44
With the mockery of the world's media, Italy's included, ringing in his ears on account of his clownish behaviour in the company of his peers, Silvio Berlusconi returned home from the G20 summit last week.
In the foreign media, his apparently flippant remarks about survivors thinking of their homelessness as a camping holiday or advising them to lift their spirits by spending Easter by the sea are taken as more instances of Mr Berlusconi's raging foot-in-mouth problem.
Some in Italy, like the former senator Rina Gagliardi, said his remarks reflected his insensitivity. "He can never be negative ... so his response is extreme optimism," she told AFP.
Among the public at large, the so-called gaffes have barely registered. Some of his appearances in the disaster zone have even drawn applause. And commentators who are often sceptical about Mr Berlusconi have concluded that politically, he is having a "good" earthquake.
He scrapped a visit to Russia and paid his first visit to the disaster zone by helicopter on Monday morning, hours after the disaster struck, and by lunchtime was on television seated alongside his hand-picked Civil Defence chief, Guido Bertolaso, reeling off statistics of death and destruction and the rescue effort.
He came back for a second look on Tuesday, then on Wednesday made a tour on foot of the devastated heart of L'Aquila, the capital of Abruzzo.
"It's far worse than I thought," he told reporters at the press conference that has become his daily ritual. "I thought the shocks would only have affected the old houses. But here there's not one building intact, it's a ghost city."
Wearing an Ultraman-style safety helmet, he talked to survivors, one of whom, a white-haired old lady, cried: "Silvio, help us, I've got nothing left, not even my dentures! Don't forget about us!" Shrugging off the shyness towards ordinary people that has in the past made him an awkward witness to tragedy, he stroked her hair and hugged her head to his breast.
"We'll do all we can," he said, in a voice choked with emotion. "You'll see, no one will be left behind, we are here."
In this way, with only weeks to go to elections for the European Parliament, Mr Berlusconi has contrived to dominate Italian coverage of the earthquake all week, yet all the while successfully avoiding any impression of exploiting the tragedy for political ends.
And according to one leading columnist, he has, after 15 years in politics, found his ideal working situation.
"It required a nightmare to bring Berlusconi's electoral dream to realisation," wrote Massimo Gramellini in yesterday's La Stampa. "For the first time we've seen him not as a politician nor as an entrepreneur but as an entrepreneur endowed with political power ... He's rolled up his sleeves and got down to work – of a type that suits him, that of deeds, where he can express his vigorous personality untrammelled by red tape and procedure."
In the process, Mr Berlusconi has rendered his competitors for attention on the national stage as not so much flat-footed, but invisible.
Enrico Franceschini, the new leader of the opposition Democratic Party, also went to L'Aquila on Wednesday but hardly anybody noticed.
President Napolitano visited yesterday, Pope Benedict said he would come as soon as possible, but neither offered any challenge to the Prime Minister, who claimed on Wednesday that he had not slept for 44 hours, while reeling off statistics like a kind of talking machine: 2,962 tents for 17,772 people, 24 camp kitchens, 14 field hospitals, 28,000 homeless, 8,500 emergency workers, and so on. Mr Berlusconi's dry run for L'Aquila was the Naples rubbish crisis: after winning the general election a year ago, he held his first cabinet meeting in the city and made a great show of taking charge personally of the problem, with the same Civil Defence chief at his side.
But Naples was a tougher fit: hostility to the new landfill sites and incinerators and the involvement of organised crime in the refuse business were among the elements that made it a messy crisis for him to negotiate.
By contrast, the earthquake disaster, at least in the immediate aftermath, is blessedly simple: there are only victims, tens of thousands of them, like the old woman and her false teeth.
Nobody has had the nerve to accuse Mr Berlusconi of making political capital out of their distress; and almost all of them must be sincerely grateful that someone so energetic, determined, powerful and kind has descended from on high, to wave his magic wand.
In this way, the distillation of Italian politics into a single outsize personality, Mr Berlusconi's project since he first offered himself as a candidate 15 years ago, is practically complete.
Mamma mia! Berlusconi's greatest gaffes
"Another reason to invest in Italy is that we have beautiful secretaries ... superb girls" – at the New York Stock Exchange, September 2003
"I'm paler because it's been so long since I went sunbathing. He's more handsome" – on Obama, March 2009
"I am the Jesus Christ of politics. A patient victim, I put up with everyone" – campaigning, February 2006
"If I weren't already married, I would marry you straight away" – to a future minister, January 2007
"In Italy there is a man producing a film on Nazi concentration camps. I shall put you forward for a role" – to a German MEP, March 2003
"I'll try to soften it and become boring ... but I am not sure I will be able to do it" – after his Nazi remark