When Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi came to Washington, D.C., on Feb. 28, he received a warm welcome. President Bush gushed, "He is such a positive, optimistic person." And Congress convened a special meeting of both houses to hear from the man Italians call (some with admiration, others with derision) "Il Cavaliere," or "The Knight." Berlusconi entered the House chamber to a standing ovation, beaming and pressing the flesh as he approached the dais. We love him, the applause seemed to say, we really love him.
Amidst all the mutual affection, Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) sensed something amiss. He had decided to attend the speech because he'd heard rumors Berlusconi might address Italy's plan to withdraw its troops from Iraq. But upon arriving, he was surprised to find that Berlusconi would deliver the bulk of his talk in Italian with no interpreter. Others found it odd as well. "It was a little out of the ordinary," says Joe Shoemaker, communications director for Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). "Usually they have a translator, or they speak English."
As Berlusconi spoke--soaring pronouncements about democracy, free markets, and the unity of purpose between Europe and America--members of Congress punctuated the remarks with applause forte. The audience followed Berlusconi's oration using a printed English translation of the speech. Yet, as if on cue, they knew exactly when to clap.
"You have to wonder if there might not have been a cheerleader in the audience," says McDermott, "How else would we have known when to stand up?" He thinks that the performance was really intended for the voters in Italy, where the speech was being broadcast on several of the stations in Il Cavaliere's Mediaset empire. Like sailors on the flight deck of the USS Lincoln during Bush's "Mission Accomplished" photo op, the members of Congress were there as extras in a taxpayer-funded campaign commercial.
And they had company. "They had filled the audience with interns," says McDermott. But Shoemaker disagrees: "There were maybe 200 to 250 members. They filled in the other 300 plus seats with visitors. Each congressional office is given a gallery pass. Senator Durbin had two guests and they were Italian restaurant owners from Chicago." (Headlines in Italy did not read: "Berlusconi Warmly Received By Interns and Restaurant Proprietors.")
What led House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to invite Berlusconi when he did? His office wouldn't return calls for comment, but the Italian prime minister, who cemented his relationship with the Bush administration by sending Italian troops to Iraq despite strong domestic opposition, currently finds his Forza Italia party polling behind the center-left opposition in the elections set for April 9 and 10.
Despite a barrage of corruption investigations--most recently for an alleged $600,000 bribe he paid to a British lawyer for favorable testimony in his last corruption trial--Berlusconi has remained at the helm of Italy for five years, nearly a lifetime in the tumultuous world of that country's parliamentary politics. A man with a flair for the dramatic, during his current re-election bid, he has compared himself to both Napoleon and the Messiah. "I am the Jesus Christ of politics," he told supporters in February. "I am a patient victim, I put up with everyone, I sacrifice myself for everyone." In a particularly Christ-like gesture, he's vowed not to have sex for the duration of the campaign.
As the election draws near, Berlusconi has put all of his prodigious energy into maximizing his exposure. As the wealthiest man in the country, he has plenty of money to spend on advertising, though he hardly needs to. In his capacity as businessman, he owns the three largest commercial TV stations and, in his capacity as prime minister, he indirectly controls the three state-owned TV stations. "He's everywhere," said an Italian journalist who covers media and politics in a phone conversation from Milan. (He asked not to be identified.) "Not only in political programs, but also talking about how good he is as a father, what he used to do when he was young, his auntie ... It's like the stations are full-time campaign ads."
Berlusconi's omnipresence comes in spite of Italy's relatively strict campaign rules governing equal time. With one candidate controlling 80 percent of the country's television media, those rules are proving difficult to enforce. After the speech to the U.S. Congress, supporters of ex-prime minister Romano Prodi--the head of the center-left opposition--complained that the broadcast of the speech had violated Italian election law. The election commission, however, said it was legal.
In addition to his Washington trip, Berlusconi had planned an audience with the Pope, hoping to nab both implicit endorsements from the most powerful man on earth and the supreme pontiff. "He wants to go anywhere where people will talk about him and talk about how beautiful he is," the journalist continued. (The visit to the pope was cancelled after Berlusconi was assailed by critics.)
Back in the Capitol, as Berlusconi reached the climax of his speech, he shifted into English and told an anecdote about a boy and his father. One day, he recounted, the father took the boy to a cemetery in Italy where American soldiers were buried. Solemnly, the father made his son swear an oath that he would never, never forget the Americans' sacrifices, that he would be eternally grateful to that country. Berlusconi delivered the punch line with gusto: "That father was my father," he whispered, "and that young man was me. I have never forgotten that sacrifice. I have never forgotten that vow. And I never will!"
The congressmen, senators, staffers, interns and restauranteurs, now all quite sure of what they heard, erupted into deafening applause. Berlusconi flashed a billionaire smile and applauded back. "It was moving," says Shoemaker. "Almost Reagan-esque."
McDermott missed the triumphant conclusion. "I didn't stay to the end. I've got things to do. When we stood up for one of the applauses, I got up and left."