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Sources of Pride

Sources of Pride

Stanton H. Burnett (October 10, 2007)

(This article first appeared in US Italia weekly on May 14, 2006)
Chance seated me at lunch last week next to a correspondent for the British weekly that, five years ago, had devoted a cover to the pronouncement that Silvio Berlusconi was “unfit” to govern Italy. I asked if his magazine intended now to run a cover declaring Romano Prodi “fit” to govern Italy.


This limp barb produced fire. He said that he had worked in Brussels during Prodi’s reign there and found him passive, unprepared, and lacking the energy to make use of crucial moments in EU history. The whole table (about half Italian) then erupted in laments about the awfulness of the campaign and the unappetizing choice that the voters had faced.

I felt hurt and defensive, even though I had been a part of the criticism during the campaign. The assertion of the poverty of the current Italian political scene, the alleged absence of respectable major figures, seemed all wrong.
Vindication came with the debate, formal and informal, about the next occupant of the Quirinale. So I ask for an intermission in our rather distanced construction of a long-term understanding of Italian political culture in order to offer some highly personal reflections on the names that surfaced as possible presidents of the Republic.
One starts such a feel-good tour with Carlo Azeglio Ciampi. Does anyone doubt that if he had decided to succeed himself the vast majority of his fellow citizens would have applauded? Given how anxious we have sometimes been for the incumbents to leave (remember Leone? Pertini?), that’s an accomplishment.
We have had our say in a recent column devoted to Giorgio Napolitano. The thrust of our argument was that, over the years, Napolitano showed himself a devoted defender of the country’s political institutions, especially the Parliament, clearly putting that priority ahead of party and personality. That posture fits the job description of the president perfectly. Add dignity, a knowledge of history, a thoughtful moderation on substantive issues and, important for us, a serious knowledge of the U.S., and you have a mix that will, I hope, lead the current White House gang to blink at the word “Communist” and realize that we, and the West, are fortunate this time.
What is impressive at this moment, to me, is the list of extraordinary political figures whose names were in the air but who are not entering the Quirinale (now, at least).
Consider Massimo D’Alema. Worse than a Red, he’s a Roman. To some outsiders, D’Alema has the appearance of a Las Vegas card dealer, with a shrug-and-blink worthy of Giannini. The reality could not be more different. During his brief stay in Palazzo Chigi little could be accomplished domestically, but some important international issues faced him. We’ll treat these in a future column. These were met with strength, intelligence, a large world view, and great allegiance to the West. Aramis, but steady. Should the Farnesina await him once again, Washington should consider itself lucky. But probably won’t.
Many of us were hopeful about Giuliano Amato’s chances. Again, there may be some erroneous perceptions at work. Part of this comes from the Dottor Sottile (Dr. Subtle) label. It is too close to “Tricky Dick” in its apparent suggestion of sly underhandedness. In fact, if the proper, straight-ahead meaning of “subtle” is maintained, it properly reflects Amato’s extraordinary sophistication and ability to master intellectual, philosophic, and political challenge. Amato is even closer to, and more knowledgeable about, America than is Napolitano. He earned a Master’s degree in constitutional law from Columbia University in the 1960s. But his official bio fails to note his return to the U.S. as a Wilson Fellow at the Smithsonian in Washington a decade later, where he focused, as I recall, on institutional reform. While others might pop into the embassy to try to learn what the ambassador was thinking or to swing invitations to events, not so Amato. I recall hunching over the coffee table in my office poring through Corwin’s tome on the presidency as Amato tried to refine his understanding of some institutional point. The very definition of a serious scholar and a serious man.
In the final hours it became clear that if a parliamentary majority should accept Berlusconi’s argument about reflecting the near-even split in the country by putting someone from the Center-Right into the Quirinale, that person would be Gianni Letta. He has consistently been an acceptable interlocutor with the Left, which suggests a large measure of trust and respect. But here once again the outside perception may mislead. He has been photographed too often standing one step to the side and two steps to the rear of Silvio Berlusconi. At best, it seemed to some, a Richelieu, at worst a carrier of the chief’s attaché case. (I seriously believe that had he been a tall man he would have been unacceptable to Berlusconi for his role.) His public pronouncements are made in a refined voice but the clang of carefully-prepared boiler plate can be heard. Part of the grayness of this eminence has been caused by Berlusconi’s absolute refusal to allow a dauphin to emerge. No one, since Berlusconi I in 1994, could give a credible answer to the question of “after Berlusconi…who?” Even this last gesture by the Cavaliere of advancing Letta’s name for the presidency had the smell of an empty (because the proposition was unlikely to be accepted) gesture of thanks for loyalty.
It would be a mistake to see Letta in this light. He too has an extraordinary level of subtlety. Running a conservative newspaper (Il Tempo) in Rome should have meant that he was close to the Americans. In the sense usually meant, he was not. He carefully kept his distance, with rigorous politeness. I recall, however, several occasions when, for example, an important senator descended on the embassy with no advance warning. He wanted some conversations “at the top” and it was very much in our interest to educate him. So we would call Gianni Letta, who always said to come right over (no matter how this fit with the paper’s deadlines), greeted the guest graciously in his elegant office overlooking Montecitorio, and would then deliver a briefing that had balance, clarity, and specificity well beyond anything the embassy or the Farnesina had provided for the senator. Letta was simply devoted to increasing understanding. Our own Jake Javits said it was the best meeting he had on one European trip.
Letta’s Il Tempo was not an especially interesting daily but (often the case in Italy) had a few first-rate commentators, including Franco Venturini and Letta himself. Letta was as handsome and meticulously groomed then as now. In fact, he hasn’t changed, a source of intense resentment for me since I’m precisely the same age. If you’ve read this far you deserve a secret revealed, something not in the official biography. If one looked carefully at several Italian feature films of the 1970s and early 1980s, one spots Letta in some small roles, obviously a hobby of amusement for Letta.
The country has not yet made all the valuable use it could of these political figures. For now, it’s enough to note, after the electoral swamp through which we’ve just slogged, that Italy has a current class of political leaders some of whom would be ornaments to any political culture. If governments were soccer clubs, I’d be clamoring for Washington to make some trades.

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