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.
I recalled this story while reading about the recent escapades of the current Italian leader, Silvio Berlusconi. You see, Berlusconi and Craxi were friends and allies, and we now know that they shared more than political passions. But there’s a very big difference between then and now. Back then — the eighties — there was next to nothing in the Italian press about Craxi’s sex life, while now Berlusconi’s activities are all over the front pages. Things are different now. It’s even conceivable, albeit rather unlikely, that his sex scandals will bring down the Italian prime minister.
This is quite a change. Back when Bill Clinton’s sex scandals were front-page material, and he was impeached for lying about them, the leading Italian commentators ridiculed American puritanism, and proclaimed themselves shocked at the very idea that a national leader’s political power could be threatened by perfectly normal dalliances. Of course there was a purely political component: most Italian journalists, as most of their American counterparts, were Clinton loyalists, while today’s versions are mostly Berlusconi critics.
I can’t help wondering how they would react if the American press ridiculed Italian puritanism, and evinced shock at the very idea that a duly elected prime minister could find himself at risk because he ran around with some pretty young girls. In fact, several of the most famous Italian commentators who today are leading the charge against Berlusconi were vigorous defenders of Bill Clinton back when.
All of which adds up to one more bad sign about our political culture. It used to be possible to talk about cultural differences that determined whether or not sexual activity was politically significant (Americans got all worked up over it, while Italians considered it quite normal and thus politically insignificant). Now it’s just about politics: a sex scandal is a really big deal if you don’t like the guy, but not so much if you like him.
To be sure, there are potentially important common threads between then and now. If there is some crisis and we need to get Berlusconi on the phone late at night, knowledge of his nocturnal habits may well be crucial in matters of life and death.
I wonder if they teach these things at the schools of advanced diplomatic studies. Wanna bet?
UPDATE: Welcome Instapunditeers! I hope you noticed that Glenn posted the link in the middle of the night..just saying…