June 08, 2007
Letter from Rome: AN AGENDA FOR BUSH'S ITALIAN VISIT
The following dispatch was written exclusively for this blog by DIRELAND's Rome correspondent, Judy Harris. A veteran expat journalist who wrote from Italy for years for TIME and the Wall Street Journal, Judy now writes for ARTnews and this month published a new book (right), "Pompeii Awakened: A Story of Rediscovery" (I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd.) Judy also has her own website.
ROME -- The choppers are already buzzing about overhead. Residents are terrified their cars will be towed away. Already they know that their phone service will be cut off, that they can't drive since roads will be cut off, and that they can't have a cappuccino, since cafes will be closed. American students here have been advised to go to the beach. Police are entering, willy-nilly, every home and hovel in the colorful across-the-Tiber district of Trastevere to inventory who lives where, as shown by passport and permit. And bemused shoppers in downtown Rome boutiques are finding that the clerks don't know the stocks or how to run the cash register: the clerks too are plainclothespersons -- watching you.
Yes, in the wake of the 2 million tourists who invaded Rome last month, George W. Bush is on his way, planning to spend a lively Saturday, June 9 in the Eternal City. Some are nervous; Rome hosted the lanzichenecchi in 1527, when their sack of Rome destroyed half the city's best buildings (they were the mercenaries of Germany's first emperor, Maximilian I, in his war against Italy). Learning the lessons of the chaotic and violent demonstrations of the July 2001 G8 summit meeting in Genoa, which ended with 600 injured, 200 arrests and one death, Rome's Mayor Walter Veltroni (right) has been negotiating with the organizers of the expected demonstrations and has opted not to have a sealed-off area, since we have never had one, as he said pointedly; the sealing off of a district in Genoa is now admitted as a grave error, which increased the violence.
The primary objective of President Bush's day-trip to Rome will be his photo-op session with Pope Benedict XVI (left, known among real insiders, for a variety of interesting reasons, as "B-16") and with the leaders of the interesting Roman Catholic community of Sant'Egidio, whose headquarters are in Trastevere. The talks with the Church representatives will focus on Darfur, Kosovo and, above all, aid to Africa and the fight against AIDs (but sans condoms.) [UPDATE: At the last minute President Bush's meeting with the Sant'Egidio, which runs what is basically a parallel foreign policy to that of the Vatican itself, has been cancelled. Insiders were asking whether the Vatican preferred not to share Bush with Sant'Egidio.]
On the official secular side, President Bush will have to shift ideological gears when he meets with Premier Romano Prodi (left) and with the President of Italy, the dignified former Communist Giorgio Napolitano (right). Prodi's year-old center-left coalition includes a couple of Communists, of both the red-flag-waving as well as cashmere bespoke variety.
In the talks with the Italians, the U.S. will shy away from Iraq. A former partner in the Coalition of the Willing, Italy managed to withdraw its troops there last winter, so the Americans are left to pressure Italy into remaining a presence in Afghanistan. Hovering in the background, not by coincidence, is the U.N.-hating former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John R. Bolton (left), who spoke in Rome Friday at Palazzo Corsini -- today a museum -- at a conference on U.S.-Italian relations sponsored by Magna Carta Foundation and the right-wing American Enterprise Institute. For some time a Bush meeting with former Premier Silvio Berlusconi (right, several years ago, showing off his naked form for the cameras back when he was still in office) was discussed, then dumped. But the meeting with Berlusconi is now back on the agenda as Bush's last stop in Rome, for a late-afternoon tea party (the official agenda speaks, however, of coffee) behind the well-guarded high walls of the Ambassador's sprawling residence with a park of ancient ilex trees, Villa Taverna in Parioli.
What will be the substance of their talks? We have an agenda to suggest. To begin with, Bush should ask Berlusconi about his health, which is what interests the rest of us. Berlusconi is seventy, and the longer he waits and hopes for a return to office, the older he grows, and the more frequent his health scares. Just two weeks ago, Berlusconi collapsed on-stage during a speech (left). He has a Rolls Royce of a new pacemaker, thanks to the Cleveland Clinic, and apparently it is ticking along just fine, as a recent photograph taken in his Sardinia villa, where he was lounging about with a bevy of young girls, was intended to demonstrate.
Berlusconi's obviously impatient rivals, who also happen to be his partners in his House of Liberty coalition -- Pier Ferdinando Casini (left), leader of the Catholic UDC party; and "post-fascist" Alleanza Nazionale leader Gianfranco Fini (right) -- are fully aware that his age is working against him, in the long run, and so Berlusconi must try to force new elections as soon as possible. But the budgeting process tends to shift new elections to springtime. Besides, as cynics remind us, those elected to the two houses of Parliament must remain 24 months in office in order to ensure their right to the generous pension. That means spring 2008; shut down now, and many will lose hard cash.
Although both Fini and Casini are itching to be premier, Berlusconi is still far more powerful and popular throughout the country. He remains the sole center-right candidate for premier, but in a broader coalition of antagonistic parties the choice might fall on Casini. And even if Berlusconi would win out, such an unwieldy coalition would be tough to dominate, despite his undoubted sales skills
After discussing Berlusconi's own health, George and Silvio can cheer themselves up by talking about the obviously weakening Prodi government coalition. Its health worsens daily; even Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema (left), the brightest of the lot, is in hot water as news leaks of his apparently compromising private phone calls are about to spill all over the news pages. The transcripts show the sort of political manipulation of appointments which D'Alema, former head of the Party of the Democratic Left, had long criticized in the right. Said our contact: "The newspaper editors already have the verbatims. They're just waiting the okay to print."
Among the proposed solutions for future governments is to overturn what has only recently become a biparty, right-left system of alternating governments. This so-called "Anglo-Saxon formula" is fairly new for Italy, with its 45-year history of cozy centrist and center-right coalitions. In such a case, the left-leaning partners would almost certainly abandon their more radical and red flag-waving mini-parties. Early last year Berlusconi himself had actually considered something of the sort, but was turned down; reportedly he now sees little interest in this.
But come springtime, expect sparks and thunder as the government crashes down.
Turning to lighter topics, Bush and Berlusconi might have a good laugh over the murder of Roberto Calvi (left) a quarter century ago. (Calvi -- corpse at right -- was known as "God's Banker" because he handled the Vatican's financial dealings as chairman of the Vatican-owned Banco Ambrosiano, whose billion-and-a-half dollar collapse was one of Italy's biggest political scandals, involving the Mafia and (it was rumored) the Propaganda Due -- or P-2 -- Masonic lodge, a hotbed of right-wing plotters, police and military chieftans, and big-time industrialists, including Berlusconi. Calvi was found hanging from London Bridge in 1982 -- a murder portrayed in the Francis Ford Coppola film "The Godfather III.") After twenty-five years, justice finally has been served, and all those accused of his murder were -- surprise! -- acquitted.
It would be best to avoid talk of the newer scandals, since these are over Bush's head, and ours, too. The present government is awash just now in a secret service fog of wrong-doing so impenetrable that even the Italian commentators are scratching their heads. The tip of the iceberg, debated today in the Italian Senate, is the firing of the head of Italy's Guardia di Finanza, General Roberto Speciale (right) -- who also irritated the present incumbents by publicly greeting Berlusconi as "President" (which he was before Prodi became president of the council of ministers) and saying, loudly, "At your orders."
If all other conversational gambits fail, the once and future premier and the (nearly) lame-duck president can share amusing and instructive anecdotes about their mothers. Obviously, W's frosty Barbara and Berlusconi's 95-year-old, typically Mediterranean mother differ. "Mamma Rosa," as she is known (right, with son Silvio), made headlines last month by making a pilgrimage down to San Giovanni Rotonda in Puglia to visit the shrine dedicated to Padre Pio, a saint particularly popular all over Italy; our fishmonger's shop has no less than three devotional photos of him. Devotion is her stock in trade; as Mamma Rosa says: "If he were another man, my son would tell them all [i.e., his critics] to go to the devil. He loves everybody, and instead of enjoying the fruits of his work he has put himself at the service of the nation and in exchange has received only insults." Barbara could learn a thing or two from such unconditional motherly love.
The kaffe klatch conversation might quicken if among the guests is the governor of the Bank of Italy, Mario Draghi (left), a sharp mind if ever there was one. The governor's 350-page year-end analysis of Italy, an annual event, was presented in Rome last week. In it Draghi synthesized today's Italy, based upon the gleanings of the official statistics office, ISTAT.
Draghi can boast that the Italians' much-admired propensity for savings remains higher than elsewhere in Europe. But on the downside, he would have to admit that his countrymen and women have begun to reduce their savings, increase their indebtedness and spend beyond their earnings. Last year disposable income rose by 2.7%, whereas spending rose by 4.5%--that is, 1.5% faster than inflation. And in order to spend more than they earned, they dug into their piggy banks, so that savings dropped from 13.3% of 2005 to 12% in 2006. Put another way, in less than a decade, Italy will be a nation of debtors.
The most disquieting thing he might tell Bush, however, is that the gap between North and South has not decreased, and that Italian education is pushing the country to the bottom of the charts. A graph in Draghi's report showed that, where Northern Italian students received a failing grade of 4 out of a maximum of 10, in the South students who received a high grade on the same examinations actually knew less than the Northerner who flunked. Shocked commentators here also are asking themselves why the Italian education system puts the high school graduates in the bottom ranks of Europe, particularly since Italian spending on schools is not inferior to others. One reasonable hypothesis: that in the decades after 1970, when mass schooling was introduced, Italy thrived on manufacturing, and hence had little interest in paying attention to its schools. As manufacturing has moved out of the country, school administrators and teachers failed to keep pace.
To understand this, for those of us who love and try to understand Italy, is to understand a great deal -- including why Mamma Rosa and posing with teenage beauties makes for good politics, at least in Italy. -- from Judy Harris (right) in Rome
Judy's last Letter from Rome for DIRELAND: "Rome's Anti-Gay 'Family Day' " (May 12, 2006)
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