As Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi faces a major sex scandal and criminal charges stemming from his now-infamous “bunga bunga” parties, The Atlantic opened a feature on these parties by comparing Berlusconi’s position to that of former president Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998. The comparison, of course, was limited—Berlusconi has no equal when it comes to ego or controversy. It did, however, raise the question: If Italy’s leading political figure can likely survive a scandal featuring a then-underage, undocumented immigrant exotic dancer, could such a leader avoid the axe anywhere else in the world? Certainly not in the United States, Americans will say: Such outrageous behavior is unacceptable from our leaders in the post-Clinton era. Yet while we lack a Berlusconi, the United States might prove less different from Italy in our expectations for public leaders than we might hope.
It is unfathomable to imagine a U.S. president throwing sex parties at his private villas, in which dozens of girls would be brought in and paid to perform whatever duties are expected of the lurid “bung bunga.” As a nation, Italy has largely different laws and expectations about sex. Prostitution, confined in the United States to massage parlors and Craigslist, is legal in Italy; until recently, Italian prostitutes could work from the age of 16. Coincidentally, it was Berlusconi’s administration that raised that age to 18, creating his problems after alleged encounters with Karima el-Mahroug.
The sordid details of the allegations against Berlusconi are well documented. Less apparent, however, is how exactly the Italian people really sees this scandal. In February, thousands of women marched against their prime minister, rallying in support of improving Italy’s present values. Expatriate Italians have found themselves in the uncomfortable position of criticizing their home nation’s leader to the satisfaction of media in their current regions, for example the press in Doha, Qatar. Yet many experts have also pointed to Berlusconi’s continued support in Italy. Gavin Hewitt, Europe editor for the BBC, has noted that many in Italy continue to admire the earthily mannered magnate and football club owner. While his satisfaction ratings are down to 30 percent, Hewitt has contrasted Berlusconi’s pariah status among other world leaders with the real possibility of his preserving power domestically.
As to ‘Il Cavaliere’ himself, Berlusconi appears confident that his persona is simply too big to fail. In a conference with Italy’s regional presidents on the nation’s pressing immigration emergency, exacerbated by the rush of refugees from North Africa, Berlusconi quipped, “I’ve registered bunga bunga as a brand so that I can use it in all of Italy’s regions.” The prime minister also recently told a crowd on the island of Lampedusa, embattled as a close target for those seeking to flee Tunisia and now Libya, the results of a presumably fictitious poll: “According to a survey, when asked if they would like to have sex with me, 30 percent said, ‘Yes,’ while the other 70 percent replied, ‘What, again?’”
Such in-your-face flippancy about his situation would prove disastrous in American politics. Yet even in the years since Clinton’s scandal to close the twentieth century, our new century U.S. politics seem riddled with cases of some kind of sex scandal. Often, those politicians have seen their careers ended, from John Edwards to Nevada Republican John E. Ensign’s recent decision not to run for reelection to the U.S. Senate. A quick Google search will reveal many lists of political transgressors, usually posted by partisans of one party to highlight scandals within the other’s caucus.
Yet the glaring exception continues to be Newt Gingrich, the former House of Representatives speaker who spoke most vociferously against Clinton’s transgressions and in favor of the president’s impeachment. Gingrich, for those living under a rock, has of course become embroiled in his own sex scandal. Gingrich has been reaching out to prospective voters about restoring America’s moral foundation even as he disputes a well known story that he divorced his first wife in 1981 after springing his decision on her at her hospital bed as she battled cancer.
Whereas Berlusconi perhaps maintains some popularity because voters know how he would handle such allegations—with bravado and misogynist humor—Gingrich’s tactic has been to deny, deny, maybe spin a bit, then deny some more. In the New York Times politics and government blog “The Caucus,” Joseph Berger recently asked, “Is Newt Gingrich a hypocrite?” Given that Gingrich was having an affair as he crusaded against Clinton, voters considering his call for a restoration of values would have grounds to think so. Gingrich, however, disagreed on Fox News, admitted the situation was “complex,” and then disagreed a lot more. According to Gingrich, he never judged Clinton on his extramarital relations, just on lying about them.
Gingrich must, presumably, have some respect for Berlusconi when it comes to honesty about his views on women. Even entertaining the possibility of Gingrich as a future president of the United States, however, would be dishonest of our nation. Shake your head at Berlusconi, even the Italian political structure for allowing him to remain in power. If Gingrich gets much support in the polls, however, just remember that America’s hands are not much cleaner.
Alexander R. Konrad ’11, a former Crimson associate editorial editor, is a history concentrator in Quincy House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.