Many years ago, il Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading newspaper, ran a column in which the author ruminated about the grim news coming out of Great Britain: some leading politician was caught in a sexual liaison and his career was ruined. The Italian columnist remarked bitterly that this was only the latest in a long series of wonderful such scandals, going back to the John Profumo-Christine Keeler saga (1963). Imagine ! he said, the Brits were drowning in sex at the highest level of society, while in Italy — the home of the “Latin lover” — there hadn’t been a decent sex scandal for years, maybe decades.
I quoted that column in 1983, when the Socialist leader Bettino Craxi became prime minister of Italy. “Now there is hope,” I wrote. The years of boring, sexless Christian Democrats were finally over, and Italy had a PM worthy of the national stereotype. Very little was written about Craxi’s strong affections for the opposite sex, but it played a small role in a famous event in 1985 known as the Achille Lauro affair. An Italian cruise ship of that name was hijacked by a gang of Palestinian terrorists, and one of the passengers, an American Jew by the name of Leon Klinghoffer, was pushed overboard in his wheelchair. Subsequently, the terrorists forced the ship to Egypt, where they commandeered a plane and took off for Tunis, where the Palestinian Liberation Organization was headquartered. We sent some fighter planes to intercept the flight, and forced it north, towards a NATO base in Sigonella, Sicily. The plan was to have the terrorists either arrested and held in Italy, or turned over to US Special Forces and brought to Washington for trial. Either way, Craxi — who was very pro-Palestinian — would have to give his ok for the planes (the terrorists’ and ours) to land on Italian soil.
It was late at night when the American Embassy in Rome tried to reach Craxi by telephone, but they couldn’t get through. Hours went by, and the planes were running out of gas. Robert McFarlane, the national security adviser, ordered me to “do something” (Craxi was a close personal friend of mine), and I called the Raphael Hotel in Rome, where he occupied the penthouse. I managed to get his personal assistant on the phone, who told me Craxi wasn’t there and couldn’t be reached. “Listen,” I said (I’m paraphrasing here), “this is a serious matter, and if people die tonight because you’re telling me he isn’t there, when in reality he’s in bed with the usual [woman] in the next room, your picture will be on the front page of every newspaper in the world tomorrow….” And just like that, Craxi was on the line. Problem solved. (Well, kinda solved; the top terrorist was smuggled out of Italy, but the others served jail sentences.)
You needed to know about the passions of the PM.