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Another Eulogy: Marco Pannella Dies at 86

Odds are you’ve never heard of Marco Pannella, the longtime leader of the Italian Radical Party, who died last week in Rome. He was 86, quite surprising for one of the country’s great chain smokers, and a veteran of numerous hunger strikes. His long life testifies to his fighting spirit.

He was never a government minister, and the Radicals only intermittently held seats in the national or European Parliament, yet Pannella had a great influence on Italian political and social life. It was only proper that his passing was the lead story in the Italian media universe for several days.

Back in the 1970s when I was the Rome correspondent for The New Republic, there were three big stories: the Communists, the terrorists, and Marco Pannella. Seemingly single-handed, he organized national referenda to legalize divorce and abortion in the face of strong and often violent opposition from the powers that were (the Church, the Christian Democrats and the Communists). Both were expected to lose, but he went two for two. Today’s Italians are very different from the pre-referenda population, and Pannella was the prime mover of the transformation.

It wasn’t easy. Not only was he vilified in the major media — which never gave him the sort of coverage he deserved — but he and other Radicals were beaten up in the streets by Communist thugs. For those who cared to see what was going on, the Communists’ behavior told you everything you needed to know about their true nature.

Pannella was a great fighter for human rights, rallying to defend decent treatment for prisoners, for the Roma (gypsies), and for the Jews. Whenever there was a demonstration in the ghetto in support of Israel, Marco was invariably there. He created an invaluable radio station, Radio Radicale, that not only covered the taboo news inside Italy, but also featured some of the finest reporters from around the world: Maurizio Molinari from New York, Fiamma Nirenstein from Jerusalem, and Francesco Sisci from Beijing. Marco was far more than a populist leader. He was a thoughtful and cultured man, a great orator and writer, and the author of a fine book about Islamic Fascism.

As you’d expect, he orchestrated his death beautifully. He’d fought lung cancer for years, and the doctors eventually told him there was nothing more to do. For his last couple of weeks, he invited his friends to visit. When he’d seen enough, he turned off all the lights, and departed.

Not soon to be forgotten.