Journalist/historian Stille (The Future of the Past, 2001, etc.) comprehensively examines the life, times and various entanglements of Italy’s richest man, and currently its prime minister.
Like a dogged prosecutor (and with perhaps too much detail for the casual reader), the author takes on the task of explaining how Silvio Berlusconi, whom he labels a “narcissistic megalomaniac,” became popular enough to garner the political support of a large number of Italians. Stille begins at the start of Berlusconi’s real-estate career in the 1960s and works forward to show him building an empire encompassing television, newspapers and publishing. Countering the tycoon’s portrait of himself as an Italian Horatio Alger rising from humble roots, Stille lays out a trail of mob ties, corruption and political shenanigans. Berlusconi’s real-estate success supplied the capital to get him into television in the ’70s, and his intuitive grasp of the medium allowed him to give Italians a product they apparently wanted: a vapid mix of chat shows and programs such as the American export Dallas, all tailored for maximum appeal to advertisers. In the early ’90s, his business empire threatened by regulation and criminal investigations, Berlusconi entered politics. With a TV-ready campaign, the candidate and his new party captured the 1994 elections, lost power, then came back in 2001. Berlusconi ruthlessly used his television stations and newspapers to influence the electorate. However, Stille notes, the Italian business and political climate is notoriously corrupt, making it somewhat hard to cast all the blame on the man he depicts as a mix of rogue, huckster and visionary. With his wealth, media power, and lowest-common-denominator rhetoric, the author argues, Berlusconi represents the shift in post–Cold War world politics toward images over ideas.
Good reading for those interested in the intersections of money, personality, media and politics.