White House forced to say sorry to Italy over Silvio Berlusconi insults
The White House was today forced to apologise to Italy after distributing a biography of Silvio Berlusconi to journalists which alleged that he only gained high office because of his “considerable influence” on the media.
The press kit, which was handed out to reporters as they boarded Air Force One on the way to the G8 summit in Japan, also described the Italian Prime Minister as “one of the most controversial leaders in the history of a country known for governmental corruption and vice”.
The White House was today investigating how the four-page biography was included in the pack after apparently being pulled directly from an encyclopaedia without the wording having been checked.
The profile dwells on Mr Berlusconi’s influence and wealth, suggesting that he is “hated by many, but respected by all, for his ‘bella figura’ or charismatic style, and for his force of will”.
It adds: “Considered by many an amateur in politics, he conquered his high office only thanks to his substantial influence in the national media.”
He is also described as having used “His business acumen and his influence to create a personal empire which produced Italy’s longest-lasting government, and to become the richest man in the country.”
In a section of the profile which appears to mock Mr Berlusconi for his self-made roots, it adds: “He earned money by organising puppet shows and making people pay a ticket, he sold vacuum cleaners, worked as a singer on cruise ships, made photographic portraits, and did the homework of other students in exchange for money.”
The profile of Mr Berlusconi appeared to have touched a raw nerve in the Prime Minister’s camp. The Italian Prime Minister is already under attack at home on a variety of issues, including allegedly changing the law to defend himself from prosecution for corruption. He is also accused of pressuring the national broadcasting company to included actresses recommended by himself in television programmes.
Yesterday, the Italian Embassy in Washington complained formally to the White House about the press pack. In response, Tony Fratto, and aide to President Bush, was today forced to issue a humiliating official apology which said: “A biography of Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi included in the press package used language that is insulting both to Prime Minister Berlusconi and to the Italian people.
“The sentiments expressed in the biography do not represent the views of President Bush, the American government, or the American people,” he said.
“We apologise to Italy and to the Prime Minister for this very unfortunate mistake.”
The latest gaffe by the White House press office follows another during Mr Bush’s visit to Rome in mid-June. During that trip, another press kit distributed to journalists named the Italian Prime Minister as Romano Prodi, whose coalition had lost a General Election in April and had been replaced by Mr Berlusconi on May 8, more than a month before Mr Bush’s visit.
Mr Fratto did not give any indication of who wrote the profile of Mr Berlusconi, nor is it known if any heads have fallen at the White House press office.
President Bush and Mr Berlusconi are believed to share a close personal relationship, based on similar political ideologies. During a visit to see the Italian Prime Minister in Rome last month, Mr Bush described them as being “good friends”. He also treated Mr Berlusconi to a visit to his Texas ranch in 2003, a rare privilege granted to only a few leaders. Mr Berlusconi was also a key backer for the US-led war in Iraq.
The two leaders did not have a formal bilateral meeting during the G8 summit.
It seems to me that US leaders have a strange relationship with Italy. They seem ready to apologize for this kind of lèse majesté diplomatic incidents; but they show no respect for the Italian people and have, on the contrary, upheld immunity from criminal prosecution for their armed forces when they were responsible for the needless deaths of Italian civil servants and civilians.
We’de be quite happy with a few harsh words towards our leaders (who, many Italians agree, are indeed self-interested and corrupt), if US authorities were willing to hold their troops responsible for their actions.