Why you should care
Because, increasingly, it’s not what you say but just exactly how you say it.
The very name Silvio Berlusconi drips off the tongue like a velvety Chianti, but Italy’s former prime minister is far better known around the world for distasteful car ads, private disco sex scandals, kinda racist comments and tax fraud than for being one of our century’s great orators. But he should be — only most English speakers wouldn’t know it.
Despite the sticky aura of scandal surrounding Berlusconi, some Italians can’t seem to get enough of him. And despite his being expelled from parliament and banned from public office following his conviction for tax evasion, he remained the leader of Forza Italia, the main opposition party. Turns out he missed out on jail simply because he’s too old to be sent away for a long time, and polls suggest that if an election were held tomorrow, he would still win 21 percent of the vote.
Berlusconi burst on the scene in January 1994, when he recorded a speech from a storage room in one of his mansions…
So what’s behind Berlusconi’s success? How has he managed to dominate Italian politics for 20 years, win three elections and create a political system that can’t seem to distance itself from his outsize presence? The answer is simple: deliciously delivered silver-tongued speeches.
Since Berlusconi first ”descended into the field” of politics, some saw an Italian Ronald Reagan, a man capable of triggering a sorely needed economic revolution. What he ultimately gave his country, however, was not a free-market champion but rather one of its greatest orators.
Which might explain and even justify his megalomania — but we’re not making excuses.
Berlusconi burst on the scene in January 1994, when he recorded a speech from a storage room in one of his mansions and sent the tape to every news channel. A woman’s stocking covers the camera lens to soften the light, and he sits at a desk framed by books and photographs of his family. Smiling, sincere, confident and authoritative, he begins: “Italy is the country I love…” After 12 takes, he chooses the first one.
(Yes, we know many won’t be able to understand what he’s saying, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t show you the stance and sound of the famous speech itself.)
The parties that had ruled Italy since 1947 had just disappeared following a corruption scandal, and Berlusconi seized the moment. He branded himself as a novelty, “as a businessman, as a citizen” who had nothing to do with the “incomprehensible chatter of politics.” The nine-minute speech was an absolute game-changer, and two months later he became prime minister. True, he was forced to resign only a few months later, but his political career was just heating up.
Over the years, Berlusconi managed to polarize the political spectrum in an unprecedented manner.
Like Reagan’s, Berlusconi’s television experience (he was a TV mogul) helped him manipulate the media (in which he controls major business interests) to his advantage — at times making a spectacle of politics. His tactics were new to the Italian public: In a country where the average person equates politics with corruption, Berlusconi never aspired to be a politician, prefering to distance himself from the label. “I did not choose politics; history imposed it upon me,” he once said. Instead, he sold himself in campaigns as a self-made successful businessman, removed from the “theater of politics,” and he spoke to Italians as a canny salesman, believing that voters should be treated as consumers. That’s just one of his great ironies.
The master of dumbing down politics, Berlusconi addressed his audience with easily remembered words, appealing stories and tales of everyday life. True to form, his most significant speeches were delivered either on TV and at rallies. In 2001, he turned around the campaign by signing a “Contract with the Italians” live from the studio of one of Italy’s most popular political programs. Five days later he won the election again and this time he stayed in office for five years. In 2007, Berlusconi was the leader of the opposition and took once more to the streets, with ”a far-sighted and visionary madness.” There he founded a new party speaking from the running board of a car. “Come with us, against the old fogeys of politics, to form a great new party of the people,” he said to the crowd gathered in a square in Milan. The announcement was unexpected: Journalists could hardly believe what was happening, and his allies who soon joined the party weren’t aware they were participating in what became known as the “running board revolution.”
Over the years, Berlusconi managed to polarize the political spectrum in an unprecedented manner. He kept the spotlight on himself, the man “anointed by God” and “persecuted” by his opponents. He set the agenda and split Italian politics and society into supporters and decriers.
Berlusconi has emerged as the most influential Italian political figure of the past two decades. Every time he was knocked from his pedestal, he rose from the ashes like a phoenix. Now 77, convicted and banned from public office, he still manages to play a central role in the Italian political scene.
By delivering power, punch and verve; by reminding us that the great characters of history are often the ones who don’t play nice — to say the very, very least. Whether you love him or hate him or need to know more about him, you can get a glimpse of the power that is Berlusconi at work below. Tip: Watch the crowd. He starts around 4:30.
Paolo Ganino contributed reporting.