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Froma Harrop
Froma Harrop
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That's Italian! That's American!

Comment

It's a Fellini-meets-Seinfeld moment. Veronica Berlusconi sends a letter to La Repubblica, the big Rome daily, charging her 70-year-old husband, the former Italian prime minister, with indecent flirting. He "indulged in comments that were unacceptable to me and cannot be passed off as light-hearted pleasantries," Veronica writes. She demands a public apology.

Silvio Berlusconi issues a request for forgiveness through his political party, Forza Italia. He signs off with, "A huge kiss, Silvio."

His mother-in-law, meanwhile, enters the fray with support for Veronica. "My daughter is standing up for her dignity," Flora Bartolini tells Italian news services, "and she's done it very well."

Laugh, Americans, laugh — but our politics are getting to be like theirs. And theirs are getting to be like ours. On both sides of the Atlantic, marital warfare is spilling over into the political arena, and the biggest reason is divorce.

What's gone wrong in the Berlusconi household? The sophisticates on the Continent, we are always told, yawn at their politicians' extramarital pursuits. And the charge in this case doesn't involve big-league cheating like adultery, but flirtation.

Don't you understand? Veronica is too smart to play the betrayal card. Rather, she is working one of the last taboos in public life: A politician may not humiliate his spouse. (Female officeholders aren't yet doing this to their husbands.) Betray her, divorce her, take her money. Just don't do it in public as though she doesn't matter. Don't do things like open a political conference and announce that the women in the front row have good legs — as had Silvio.

Now Veronica is no lambkin, which, Machiavelli would be the first to tell you, makes her more dangerous. A former actress, she took up with Silvio while he was married to someone else.

Her rich and powerful husband has shown himself capable of leaving a wife. Veronica knows he could easily replace her 50-year-old self with the next in line. Veronica wants to be the only "other woman."

If divorce hadn't been legalized in Italy, none of this would be happening. Silvio would still be married to the first Mrs. Berlusconi, who, secure in her status, would not worry about his gallantries toward younger ladies.

Before divorce became commonplace in America, straying rarely caused political upheaval, if it was discreet. Jackie Kennedy did not write letters to The Washington Post demanding contrition from Jack. In America, the first lady stood by her man.

Look what's happening now. An ordinary divorce no longer destroys a candidacy, nor, in many parts of the country, does an extramarital affair. But, again, humiliating a partner remains politically dicey.

The one likely candidate with a serious humiliation issue is Republican Rudolph Giuliani. While New York City mayor, Giuliani flaunted his mistress. Things got so bad that his wife had to ask a judge to bar him from bringing the woman, now his third wife, to their official residence.

In 2004, Jack Ryan was forced to leave the Illinois race for a Senate seat when some highly embarrassing divorce-related files became public. In them, his ex-wife, Jeri (also an actress), accused him of pressuring her to perform sex acts at clubs.

Silvio Berlusconi wrote in his apologia: "Forgive me, I beg you. And take this public show of my private pride giving in to your fury as an act of love. One of many."

This could close the matter — unless there's some other weird agenda I can't figure out. In any event, the former Italian premier would do well to contain his impulses. And oh yes, he should keep Veronica away from his pacemaker batteries. Her mother, too.

To find out more about Froma Harrop, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.

COPYRIGHT 2007 THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL CO.

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