There’s always a small sense of regret when a crooked politician is convicted for something other than their actual crookedness. But that’s the way of the world: it’s usually the cover-up rather than the conspiracy that gets you. Charges of lying to investigators or incidental matters are easier to prove than the real crime.
(Nor is the moral confined to politics – Alger Hiss went to jail for perjury, not espionage, just as Al Capone had gone down for tax evasion rather than murder.)
With Silvio Berlusconi, however, the regret is less pronounced: firstly because the charge of sex with an underage prostitute that he was sentenced on yesterday is only one of a number of fronts on which prosecutors have engaged him, and secondly because the charge, while fundamentally irrelevant to his real guilt, was nonetheless emblematic of the nature of Berlusconi’s reign.
For Berlusconi’s supporters, the multitude of charges and trials – he has already been sentenced to four years jail for tax evasion, a verdict that, like yesterday’s, is under appeal – is further evidence that the judiciary is out to get him. But rather than a witchhunt or a sign of bias, it could merely indicate that Berlusconi in his long career has been implicated in a lot of things – and that since for most of that time he has been in a position to prevent prosecutions, something of a backlog has built up.
The sex charge on its own would not discredit Berlusconi much, particularly since the woman concerned – like him – denies that any sex took place. (Not a believable denial, but one that makes it harder to see her as a victim.) But it is part of a pattern with the corruption and the other abuses of power of which he has been convicted or accused. The pattern is of a talented and successful man who used his very considerable power in his own interests, not those of his country.
Berlusconi’s real offence in the court of history is that at a time when Italy needed constructive and intelligent leadership, he was enjoying the perks of office and letting his country’s economy go to seed; cavorting with pretty young women and raking in money from his various conflicted business interests.
Fiddling while Rome burns, like most political misdeeds, neither is nor should be a crime in itself, but it deprives the fiddler of a lot of sympathy.
Yet it’s also worth remembering that well-meaning and conscientious rulers have done damage on a much larger scale. As I wrote two and a half years ago, “Compared to many less corrupt and more principled leaders, the harm that Berlusconi has done barely registers. … The demonstrators on the streets of Rome may not appreciate the point, but when it comes to politics, the corrupt are the least of our worries.”
Housekeeping note: I’m on holidays until late next week, so blogging will probably be a bit more erratic than usual. There might also be some delays in moderation; please bear with us.