Former Italian President Francesco Cossiga, 82 years old, died last night in a Roman hospital where he had spent the last week, mostly in and out of coma, unable to breath without assistance. He was one of the most colorful Italian politicians and served in various key positions of the government, including Interior Minister and Prime Minister, during some very tough times in the 1970s and 80s.
When we were living in Rome, I saw quite a bit of Cossiga, who ran a sort of intellectual eating society where many of the country’s leading historians, philosophers, businessmen and artists congregated for great food and candid conversation. As I recall, he organized these evenings every 2-3 weeks, and I was fortunate to attend several. He was always generous with his time, and I think I was one of the few Americans to know him well. During the period his friend Aldo Moro was held captive by the Red Brigades, Francesco suffered terribly. I spent an entire day with him at that time, and I have rarely seen a man in such anguish; he felt personally culpable for Moro’s fate, and when the terrorists killed him, Cossiga–in an act rare for men in power–immediately took responsibility and resigned.
He was a Christian Democrat and deeply religious. He loved going to mass in the beautiful church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, and I wasn’t surprised to find that he had left very detailed instructions for his funeral (private, in his native Sardinia) and burial (alongside his father in Sassari). No state funeral for him.
He was a rarity in many ways. He was an outsider, like all Sardinians in Rome. He had a terrific sense of humor. He was a serious student of history. He was an Anglophile, and read and spoke English fluently, which set him apart from almost all his peers. And, as the story of his little salon shows you, he loved good conversation and of course good food and wine.
While prime minister, he tried to gain American support for “normalization” with the Italian Communist Party. I think he did this because Moro had long argued that it was both good for Italy and inevitable, but perhaps he also believed it. In any event, he organized a trip to Washington during the Carter years for two leading Communists, to talk to the “shadow government” of thinkers and scribblers. It was a fiasco.
Then, during Reagan, Cossiga was one of the leaders of the Italian acceptance of the Pershing missiles that thwarted the Soviets’ design to intimidate Europe with their own big missiles. The Germans had said they would take the Pershings, provided at least one other continental European country did the same. Working in tandem with Prime Minister Craxi, Cossiga led the Parliament to vote ‘yes.’
In recent years, he acquired a reputation for eccentricity, and he became one of the most outspoken and beloved political leaders in the country. I am sure that there is widespread grief today across the ideological landscape. Francesco did it right, demonstrating good character, great wit, and serious thinking. Not many like that.