The World’s Greatest Salesman

THE POLITICAL CAREER OF THE ITALIAN MEDIA MAGNATE SILVIO BERLUSCONI STARTED, appropriately enough, with a videocassette. On Jan. 26, 1994, Berlusconi addressed the Italian people on all three of his national television networks. Within two months, he turned Italy’s political world upside down, created a new political party from scratch and won national elections that would make him Prime Minister.

When people try to explain the “Berlusconi phenomenon,” they often mention “the tape,” which looked like an address from the Oval Office at the White House. Berlusconi was shown in the study of his sumptuous 18th century villa behind a commanding desk, with family photographs in the background. Even though he was a private citizen and a political novice, Berlusconi spoke as if he were already in office. “Berlusconi was the ‘virtual reality’ president,” says Giuliano Ferrara, one of his chief political strategists. “I understood at that moment that he had changed the form of Italian politics.”

But during the last year and a half, unpleasant realities have intruded on Berlusconi’s presidential dreams. He was forced to step down as Prime Minister at the end of 1994 when part of his center-right coalition abandoned the Government and investigations into his business empire reached his doorstep. This year, in January, he went on trial on charges of authorizing bribes paid by his companies before he entered political life. But Berlusconi’s travails appear only to have reinforced his determination to return to power and strengthened his almost messianic faith in his own talents, especially his considerable powers of persuasion.

Many Americans have the impression that since Berlusconi is a defendant in a criminal case, he is politically finished. They are mistaken. He remains the leader of the center-right coalition, which has an excellent chance of winning new elections, now scheduled for April 21.

Whether Berlusconi succeeds in his bid to return to office, his story is one of the great political adventures of recent times. He is the Citizen Kane of the television era, an astonishing example of what happens when media, money and politics combine forces in a society with almost no rules.

His Fininvest business empire extends far beyond television, including everything from book publishing to department stores. Imagine if a real-estate mogul along the lines of Donald Trump also owned CBS, NBC, the Fox network, Paramount Pictures, Newsweek, Random House, Conde Nast, The Los Angeles Times, HBO, the Dallas Cowboys, Wal-Mart stores, Aetna insurance, Loews Theaters and Fidelity Investments and had the political clout of Bill Clinton or Newt Gingrich, and you get an idea of the long shadow Berlusconi casts in Italian life.

From a middle-class family in Milan, Berlusconi helped to put himself through college by working as a nightclub singer on Mediterranean cruise ships. His skills as an entertainer and his own irresistible charm figure heavily in his many stories of his miraculous rise, even though crucial details change from one telling to the next.

When Berlusconi was trying to break into the French television market in the mid-1980’s, he obtained an audience with President Francois Mitterrand, whose backing Berlusconi desperately needed. At the end of the encounter, Berlusconi was uncertain whether he had penetrated Mitterrand’s glacial reserve and so, as Mitterrand was escorting him to the door of the presidential palace, Berlusconi had what he described as a “stroke of genius.” He rushed over to a piano and began to sing “Au Revoir, Paris.” Although the chief of protocol looked on in horror, Mitterrand seemed to melt. “I had touched the right chord,” Berlusconi later told interviewers. “I had hit the bull’s-eye.”

In fact, when I attended one of Berlusconi’s public appearances in December, it had more of the atmosphere of a concert than a political rally. The occasion was a meeting of his party, Forza Italia (Go, Italy!), whose name cleverly co-opts the rallying cry of Italy’s national soccer team. As Berlusconi made his way through the excited crowd, the loudspeakers began to play the Forza Italia party anthem, which Berlusconi is said to have helped write. “Silvio! Silvio! Silvio!” the crowd chanted loudly, as Berlusconi moved toward the stage with a bounce reminiscent of vintage Ronald Reagan.

Berlusconi, who is about 5 feet 6 inches tall, has an athletic bearing. With his finely tailored, double-breasted dark suits and his ready smile, he has the smooth elegance of a 1950’s crooner. Rather than stand behind a lectern and read a speech, he took the microphone and moved around the stage, establishing a rapport with the audience, as if he were Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett.

Berlusconi spoke for more than an hour without notes, never missing a beat. Unlike most Italian politicians, he speaks in a clear, concrete manner. But this day’s performance was somewhat angrier and more defensive than usual. Prosecutors in Milan are making his life difficult. They recently discovered a series of Swiss and offshore bank accounts that they say show that Berlusconi has funneled millions of dollars to a former Socialist Prime Minister, Bettino Craxi, a fugitive in Tunisia — a charge Berlusconi angrily denies. He railed against the magistrates, the “Communists” and his many “enemies” who would stop at nothing to destroy him. The negative tone of the speech seemed to have a somewhat dampening effect on the crowd. Nonetheless, as I left the rally, I found myself humming the Forza Italia anthem.

I met Berlusconi the following day in his Rome residence, just behind Piazza Navona in a Baroque palace built by a 17th-century pope. Delicately painted frescoes of cherubs adorn the ceiling of the waiting room. He was dressed in blue jogging pants, jogging shoes and an elegant navy cashmere sweater. (The color blue plays a large part in the Berlusconi universe. “All the psychologists indicate it as the color that creates a sense of well-being,” says Aura Nobolo, press secretary of the Forza Italia group in Parliament.)

Even in informal dress, Berlusconi is impeccably groomed. His thinning hair is carefully in place. And although he is masterful at working a crowd, he appears to have a phobia about germs and quickly washes his hands. “It seems to be typical of tycoons,” says Giuliano Ferrara, his aide. “Tycoon” is a word Berlusconi uses to describe himself, and he takes obvious delight in his wealth.

BERLUSCONI, NOW 59, MADE AN INITIAL fortune in the 1960’s and 70’s in real estate. He had no experience in construction but immediately showed a talent for sales that has since become abundantly evident. He has phenomenal energy, a great attention to detail and boundless conviction in himself. His deepest beliefs seem to spring from American self-help gospels like Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” At a training session, he told company salesmen that every morning he stands in front of the mirror and says: “I like myself. I like myself.” He is fond of saying he carries “the sun in his pocket,” and he instructs his employees to project the same total inner confidence.

His success in politics depends at least in part on his ability to get Italians to share his own radiant optimism. The problem is that he seems ready to say whatever is necessary at a given moment to convince a particular audience, even though that may vary from another version, or from fact. This, too, is part of the Berlusconi philosophy. If you want to convince someone, he told his sales force, make up a quote and attribute it to some renowned authority: “So use this method: ‘As Bill Paley of CBS said. As Plato said. As Abraham Lincoln said.’ . . . Who’s ever going to go and look it up? . . . People are incredibly gullible. They love quotations.”

Berlusconi’s success has also depended on an ability to manipulate the political levers in Rome. He and his associates were even able to persuade the Government to change the air routes into the Milan airport, which turned his biggest real-estate deal from a potential fiasco into a gold mine. It was in this period, the middle to late 1970’s, that Berlusconi cemented his friendship with Craxi, whose political base was in Milan. Craxi became the best man at Berlusconi’s second wedding and the godfather to one of his children.

Throughout Berlusconi’s meteoric rise, a fundamental question remains: Where did this young man of no apparent means get the capital to start his real-estate ventures? A recent book by two Italian journalists says Berlusconi’s initial investors were anonymous Swiss companies whose owners remain unknown. At the same time, there are several criminal investigations stretching back 15 years that have linked members of the Fininvest group to organized crime — investigations that Berlusconi has denounced as political witch hunts.

For all his claims of being self-made, much of Berlusconi’s success in establishing a near monopoly in private television derives from his political backing, virtually limitless credit and a willingness to play fast and loose with the rules. Throughout the 1980’s, Craxi’s Socialists repeatedly threatened to bring down the Government every time anyone tried to introduce antitrust legislation applicable to the television industry.

Even so, Berlusconi has been a genuine innovator. Before him, Italian television was technically crude and substantively old-fashioned, concentrating on cultural and informational programming. Berlusconi, unencumbered by any notion of television as public service, looked to Hollywood for his model and began buying up entire film libraries. He introduced Italy to “Dallas,” “Dynasty” and “Wheel of Fortune,” while adding an Italian accent with programs like “Colpo Grosso,” which may be the world’s first nude game show. These programs fit the mood of the times: the Italian middle class, sick of the terrorism and ideological frenzy of the 1970’s, was ready to enjoy a period of prosperity awash in the consumer goods shown on Berlusconi’s network.

“Berlusconi created a culture built around the idea of success, personal wealth and material well-being,” says Mauro Paissan, a member of Parliament with the left-of-center coalition. Berlusconi himself seemed to fulfill the very dreams that his television stations were promoting. He was a larger-than-life overnight billionaire — an Italian version of J. R. Ewing. In 1993, a public opinion poll showed that Berlusconi was better known among Italian young people than Jesus Christ. When I mentioned that, he quickly corrected me: “It wasn’t ‘best known,’ it was ‘most loved.’ I was first, Arnold Schwarzenegger was second and Jesus Christ was third.”

By the 1990’s, Berlusconi’s holdings had expanded greatly. They include the three national television networks; Mondadori, which is the country’s largest book publisher and largest magazine publisher; the largest movie production company; the largest department store chain; the most successful soccer team; a chain of movie theaters; a major insurance and mutual fund company and a daily newspaper, Il Giornale. Berlusconi’s networks account for about 45 percent of Italy’s television audience and about 60 percent of the television advertising revenue. Together with his other publishing holdings, Fininvest controls an incredible 36 percent of all advertising revenue in Italy.

Given Berlusconi’s close ties to the Italian political class, the bribery scandal that began in Milan represented a major threat to the Fininvest empire. Craxi was forced to resign, and he eventually fled to Tunisia. Not surprisingly, Berlusconi’s Fininvest — along with many other prominent Italian businesses — came under scrutiny for suspicion of bribery. The Italian left made no secret of its desire to finally pass antitrust legislation and break up the Fininvest monopoly.

“If I don’t enter politics, they’ll tear me to pieces,” Berlusconi told Indro Montanelli, the editor of his newspaper, Il Giornale.

Along with his extraordinary media access, Berlusconi won because he succeeded in uniting Italy’s conservative parties, winning over the center and outshining the country’s lackluster and divided left. Like Reagan, Berlusconi exuded infectious optimism and proved a master in communicating simple, appealing messages. Like Ross Perot, he presented himself as a political outsider who could whip Italy’s inefficient bureaucracy into shape, like a business executive’s turning around a troubled company.

While Berlusconi has shown considerable political ability, the importance of his direct control of his media empire should not be underestimated. When he was preparing his campaign, he called the news directors of his three private television networks and the editors of his vast newspaper and magazine empire to his villa at Arcore and gave them marching orders. “We have to sing in chorus about the topics that interest us . . . we must respond to the artillery fire against us by concentrating all our artillery against them . . . If those who attack us unjustly . . . were assaulted simultaneously by all our media, the aggression would end.”

Most complied, but Montanelli, the editor of Il Giornale, refused. Montanelli, 86, regarded by many as Italy’s most respected journalist, was forced out after a series of public humiliations, including being repeatedly attacked by one of Berlusconi’s networks for failing to support the man who paid his salary.

The imposition of total political control at his Fininvest networks was comparatively easy. Even entertainment programs on those networks have been put to work for the boss’s cause. During the campaign, a teen-age idol, Ambra Angiolini, proclaimed on live television that “God the Father is rooting for Berlusconi,” while Satan wanted the center-left to win. On the night of Berlusconi’s victory, Emilio Fede, a Fininvest anchor, wept with joy on the air.

WHATEVER ROLE TELEVISION MAY have played during the election, enthusiasm for Berlusconi was genuine when he took office in the spring of 1994. But success may have gone to Berlusconi’s head. Almost immediately on taking power, his Government acted to force the resignation of the board of directors of RAI, Italy’s state television system, who were replaced with more ideologically sympathetic figures, some of them imported directly from the Berlusconi networks.

Berlusconi then decided to take on another of his perceived enemies, the prosecutors. In mid-July 1994, his Cabinet decreed that prosecutors could not issue arrest warrants for many nonviolent crimes, including political corruption — just as the investigation in Milan was climbing up the Fininvest ladder.

But the decree provoked widespread public protest and was withdrawn. A few months later, prosecutors announced that Berlusconi was under investigation for allegedly authorizing bribes that his brother, Paolo, and others have admitted paying to tax authorities in exchange for favorable audits. Berlusconi’s administration unraveled at the end of 1994.

But since his exit from government, Berlusconi has remained the pivotal figure of the center-right. Moreover, he appears to have achieved two of his principal political aims: securing the future of Fininvest and blunting the force of the anti-corruption investigations.

Last spring, Berlusconi defeated a national referendum that would have limited him to owning one national network. Before broadcasting films, the Fininvest networks warned viewers that they might not see movies if the referendum succeeded. Fininvest ran ads saying the referendum would effectively end commercial television.

After the referendum, Berlusconi is now gearing up for an even more important vote. The elections next month are a major crossroads. He is running with only one principal ally, the National Alliance, the former neo-Fascist party, so that a center-right victory will be seen as a clear political mandate. Berlusconi says that if he is re-elected he will change Italy’s Constitution to give greater powers to the executive branch. He remains highly popular with voters, although his leadership of the right is being challenged from within his own coalition by Gianfranco Fini, who has moderated the National Alliance’s image.

On the center-left, Berlusconi’s chief opponent is Romano Prodi, a respected but uncharismatic economist. A month before the election, polls show the two sides neck and neck with one in three of the electorate undecided. Berlusconi’s ubiquitous presence on all the television networks as the head of his party’s ticket raises again the huge question of conflict of interest — a problem not well understood in Italy and one I discussed at length with him in Rome.

“Given the fact that you’re on trial,” I asked, “and that your company has been under investigation from before you entered politics, do you believe that you can impartially administer the justice system?”

“But these charges against me are total inventions,” he said.

“People in your company, including your brother, have actually admitted paying bribes,” I replied.

“They were victims of a crime, not the perpetrators of a crime,” he responded.

Revamping of Italy’s state television and its generous public pension system is on the agenda of all the political parties. How can the chief owner of private television and a major insurance company handle that without conflict? Berlusconi reacted with surprise and indignation. “I could never do anything in office that could possibly benefit myself or my company,” he said.

Precisely in that period, his group in Parliament was pushing an amendment to the budget that would have given Fininvest a tax abatement worth an estimated $400 million. The amendment failed, but Forza Italia did succeed in winning a valuable abatement for Fininvest’s pay-television station. Leading the charge on both pieces of legislation was Vittorio Dotti, who is both the head of Forza Italia’s group in Parliament and the chief corporate lawyer for Fininvest.

Berlusconi says he knows nothing of any such base horse-trading. “When I was in office, I detached myself from the day-to-day running of the company,” he said. “And even if I wanted to help my company, I couldn’t. There are so many checks, decisions are taken collectively.”

A Fininvest executive who insisted that he not be identified explained: “He simply does not understand the concept of conflict of interest. When I mentioned to him that when Harold Macmillan had become Prime Minister of Britain he had sold off his interest in his publishing house, Berlusconi’s only response was: Why?”

Berlusconi says he believes that he has made an enormous personal sacrifice by offering to lead the nation. “Before I entered politics, when I used to appear in public everyone would applaud; now half of the people applaud, and half of them boo,” he said. “I have made a radical innovation in the moral and political climate of this country . . . Other politicians obtained advantages and money out of public life. I have received only disadvantages, and I have spent money, a lot of money.” How much? I asked. “I can’t say exactly. I have spent a small fortune supporting Forza Italia.”

He is lavishly generous with his closest aides, who have displayed iron loyalty toward him — even under the enormous pressures of the bribery investigations. He says he would be equally generous toward the entire nation, if it would only let him.

“You don’t understand,” he said as our talk came to an end, and he leaned back wearily on the white couch in his living room, as if gathering his strength for one final attempt to make me see the light. “I have achieved everything in life a man can hope for — I have nothing left to gain personally,” he said, suddenly coiling his body forward. “I have had this extraordinary, unique experience, and I want to make a contribution to the nation. I know how to create; I know how to lead people; I know how to make people love me.”

– March 17, 1996

As published in The New York Times


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