Most of you don’t know about Giulio Andreotti, who died Monday at 94 or 95, and you’re the poorer for it. No one in political life today can possibly aspire to a career like his, and I don’t know anyone who can remotely match Andreotti’s wit, wisdom, cunning and humor. There may be a high position in the Italian government that he never held, but I can’t think of it. Seven times prime minister, and for decades he was universally believed to be the most powerful man in the country, the puppet master of the whole system, the master of maneuver.
He was famously accused of being in cahoots with the Mafia, and stood trial for 7-8 years before the judges threw out the case. A friend of mine, a great writer named Lino Jannuzzi, wrote a small masterpiece about it called The Trial of the Century, which pretty much demolished the accusation, but most of the journalists and intellectuals who pretend to be expert in things Italian remain convinced of his guilt. In a bittersweet way it’s a tribute to Andreotti’s charisma.
Andreotti’s real power base lay in Rome, his home town, and the Vatican. He was a devout Catholic, and if you wanted to be sure to find him, all you had to do was wait for mass to end at his favorite church. His career started during Word War II, and he emerged from it as the personal secretary to Alcide de Gasperi, who was PM during the crucial postwar years. As his generation aged and died off, Andreotti carried on, always with a twinkle in his eye. Somehow he found time to write books about the history of Rome. They were very good books and nobody ever suggested he had a ghost; the language was his, the ideas were his, and the wit and wisdom were unmistakably his.
I knew him fairly well. For someone eager to understand the complexities of Italian political life, you couldn’t find a better guru, and he was often generous with his time. His advice was invariably spot-on; he pointed me at the best sources on problems I was trying to solve, whether they were contemporary issues on which I had to report for the New Republic, or historical matters for my books on Italy. And later on, when I was briefly in the U.S. government, he said something to me that I haven’t forgotten. “Ledeen,” he said, in his measured tone, “we can live with a dovish America, and we can live with a hawkish America. No problem. But we cannot survive an America that is hawkish Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and dovish Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.”
Remember he was PM seven times, and foreign minister or defense minister even more times. He knew the details, and he’d seen many American presidents, from FDR to Reagan.
Perhaps his most famous bon mot is a good way to say goodbye: “Power corrupts,” he remarked, “above all, those who do not have it.”