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...