ROME - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's political and sexual exploits make headlines around the world, and not just in the tabloid press. These stories would be no more than funny - which they are certainly are - if they were not so damaging to Italy and revelatory of the country's immobile politics.
For, despite the rampant scandals, "national Silvio" ("Il Silvio Nazionale") remains by far Italy's most popular and successful politician (though his approval ratings have now dipped below the 50% mark in opinion polls for the first time since his second return to the premiership in 2008).
Part of the reason for Berlusconi's longevity despite his many stumbles is cultural. As in other Latin or Mediterranean countries with a strong Catholic tradition, Italian society long ago learned to accept serenely a life of duplicity: on the one hand, a strong attachment to church and family values, and on the other a second life - often lived in plain sight - composed of mistresses and other "dubious" connections.
Today's Italian Catholic political leaders often embrace such a lifestyle. In recent years, aside from Berlusconi himself, other divorcés like Centrist Catholic Party Leader Pier Ferdinando Casini and Parliament Speaker Gianfranco Fini could easily deliver passionate speeches in the morning on the importance of the traditional family unit and the sacredness of marriage, attend a touching audience with the Pope in the afternoon, and then rush off in the evening to their unmarried partners and mothers of their latest offspring.
Italian society's tacit acceptance of such behavior has become more openly acknowledged in recent years, thanks perhaps to Berlusconi and his vast media holdings. In the 1970's, the average Italian working-class family's major ambition for its children was for them to study, go to university, and become a doctor or a lawyer.
Since the late 1970's, and especially during the 1980's and 1990's, Berlusconi's three private TV channels have portrayed a false and illusory model of quick success, as seen in American soap operas such as "Dallas." Since the 1990's, his channels broadcast "Big Brother" and Italian variety shows dominated by male comedians, musclemen, and scantily clad young girls, popularly known as "veline."
In the space of just 30 years, Berlusconi's TV stations managed to impose this illusory portrait of success on Italian society. And today, the ambition of many working-class Italian mothers is to see their daughters become a successful scantily clad "velina" who, in turn, manages to hit the gossip columns by flirting with the latest muscleman-turned-TV heartthrob or some budding young football player. Graduating as a doctor or a lawyer is no longer a mark of success.
Despite his lack of muscles and hair, Berlusconi is the embodiment of this form of success. The former cabaret singer who became one of the richest businessman in the world, has also managed to become Italy's most powerful politician - and one of the world's most colorful. Until a few weeks ago, the average Italian viewed him as a role model, someone who had succeeded in many spheres of life.
That has now changed. People have become less admiring of Berlusconi, because the hypocrisy has gone too far. It may be trendy for an Italian politician to flaunt his Mediterranean macho image, but that image becomes hard to stomach when the prime minister launches a campaign to eradicate street prostitution, with possible jail sentences for clients, while sleeping with paid escorts.
Nor are Italians reassured to learn that Berlusconi fielded a number of candidates during the recent European Parliament elections whose only discernible qualification was that they were pretty young girls who had possibly spent some time in the prime minister's company at his Sardinian Villa or Roman Palazzo.
Today, it seems all but certain that Berlusconi will never be elected President of Italy, the post to which he has always aspired. Moreover, rumors are rife that he is now being attacked for his behavior by members of his own party. Indeed, some maintain that Berlusconi will be forced to resign as prime minister by the end of the year.
Such rumors may well turn out to be true, for the heart of the scandal now concerns the taped conversations between a paid escort and Berlusconi during their romps in his Sardinian villa on the big bed given to him by his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. A downfall plotted to happen on a Kremlin-supplied bed would be a denouement that not even one of Berlusconi's TV channels could dream up.