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Il Teflon Cavaliere knows his way around anarchy

THIS NEWSPAPER LIKES TO CROW about its successes, so it’s only appropriate we admit to our occasional lapses. Take, for example, our failure to review one of the epic shows of Europe — the electoral campaign of Italy’s media czar, Silvio Berlusconi, which drew to its operatic climax today. Berlusconi’s drive for power has pushed beyond the boundaries of politics. It’s become a Fellini movie come to life, replete with midnight raids, bizarre revelations and Mafia threats. It may be anticlimactic to actually announce a winner rather than taking the whole production on a world tour.

Berlusconi’s decision to seize the reins of power in Italy would equate in the U.S. with an amalgam of John Malone, Ted Turner and Sumner Redstone making a run on the presidency.

Berlusconi is the ultimate media maven, the proprietor of a $ 7 billion empire encompassing three private networks that are watched by half of Italy’s TV viewers, not to mention other holdings in publishing, real estate, sports, supermarkets, etc. To no one’s surprise, Berlusconi has focused his campaign on TV — why ignore a captive audience? And he has proven an effective campaigner, with appropriate Italian flourishes. His speeches are accompanied by giant images flashed on TV screens depicting the footage of a future, less chaotic Italy.

Now, I admit to being a lifelong sucker for everything Italian, from food to clothes, so Berlusconi’s approach to politics has a special appeal to me. Where else but in Italy would an entrepreneur run on a ticket of fiscal probity, when his own company, Fininvest, is staggering under a $ 2.2 billion debt load? In what other nation would a candidate give speeches against corruption when his own brother and top business associates bounce in and out of jail on charges of fiscal malfeasance?

IF RONALD REAGAN was the Teflon candidate, Silvio Berlusconi must have commissioned Armani to design a new protective coating that puts Teflon to shame. How else could he promise at one moment to put Italy on a new path (Forza Italia is the name of his movement) and at the same time admit to having once belonged to one of those murky Masonic lodges that keep popping up amid scandal and conspiracy? Little wonder that last week, with the campaign nearing its climax, a squad of plainclothes agents raided his headquarters in Rome at the request of magistrates supposedly seeking links with the Freemasons and organized crime.

Typically, the 57-year-old media lord — Il Cavaliere, or the Knight, as the Italian press prefers to call him — turned the whole thing around, charging that the magistrates had succumbed to “totalitarian tactics.”

Now, I realize that this newspaper traditionally hasn’t taken sides in elections, but personally I would love to see Il Cavaliere get a shot at ruling Italy. It could be argued, after all, that only someone who has mastered the vicissitudes of television could cope with the task of governing a completely anarchic country.

GOVERNMENTS IN ITALY are like TV shows, rising and falling with each new season. There have been 52 regimes since the end of World War II. A TV lord like Berlusconi would understand how to adapt to this revolving door — you make a few cast changes, put a few new twists in the plot and, as in American television, you basically recycle the same show from year to year.

He also could mobilize TV to thwart his enemies — the Mafia, for example. It’s one thing for politicians to orate against the mob, but when is the last time Berlusconi television has produced a really good TV series about the Mafia (RAI did one), or even dusted off a few reruns of “The Untouchables”?

Berlusconi’s image as Media King in itself might serve to uplift his fellow countrymen. Italy has long been afflicted by a certain regionalism, if not tribalism, but Il Cavaliere represents a force for unity, with a lifestyle to boot. His company may owe $ 2.2 billion, but he still lives in a 70-room villa. He is the ultimate self-made man. According to unconfirmed reports, he even does the unthinkable — he occasionally pays his taxes.

If Berlusconi fails to win power in Italy, he might think about pulling up roots and trying his hand at U.S. politics. After all, while Berlusconi may have joined the wrong Masonic lodge, he never invested in Whitewater. That would give him an advantage right there.

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