George W. Bush's approval ratings are so low that you can almost picture the First Dog, Barney, barely able to muster a single wag of his pointy black tail when the Commander-in-Chief strides into the White House living room. So it seemed auspicious that rolling up to the South Lawn on Monday was the man who might just be President Bush's Last Best Friend on Earth. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi arrived in Washington just in time for Columbus Day, and just in time to say what almost no other political figure would venture to say out loud right now: "I'm 100% sure and positive that history will say that George W. Bush has been a great, very great President of the United States of America."
The effusive and stubbornly loyal Berlusconi has stuck with Bush despite the American President's abiding unpopularity in Italy. More than 80% of Italians were opposed to the war in Iraq, but their controversial Prime Minister helped spearhead the so-called "Letter of Eight" public declaration of support from some European leaders for Bush's Iraq policy in the weeks before the invasion. Following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Berlusconi sent 3,000 Italian peacekeeping troops to southern Iraq. During Bush's June 2004 visit to Rome, the two leaders were the target of a massive anti-war rally. But Berlusconi, who at the time was growing increasingly unpopular with Italian voters, did not play down his kinship with the President during an interview then with TIME. "We have the same roots. He was in business and sports, and so was I. We can speak to each other," Berlusconi declared. The two always made a point of calling each other by their first names, regularly slapped each others' backs, and Berlusconi earned repeat invitations to Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas.
Berlusconi's failed reelection bid in 2006 meant a two-year parenthesis of somewhat cooler Washington-Rome relations, as center-left Prime Minister Romano Prodi, an opponent of Bush's Iraq policy, came to power in Italy. By the time Prodi's government collapsed and Berlusconi returned to power last spring, Bush was already registering dismal approval ratings, and heading toward the lower rungs in the historians' presidential ratings game.
None of that, evidently, has changed the equation for Berlusconi. At Monday's White House ceremony, the Italian Prime Minister gushed with praise for his host: "I've been honored over these years by the possibility of cooperating with you. I've found in you a man of great ideals, great principles, a man of vision." He continued: "And it was always easy for me to share your ideas, to share your visions, to be next to you, to stand next to you, because we are always bound by these common love for freedom, love for democracy, respect for the others, and the feeling, this common feeling that we are here just to serve our peoples." Bush returned the compliments, thanking Berlusconi for his "friendship and his wisdom," and calling him "a man of sincerity and principle, who speaks his mind and keeps his word." He even took a rather weak stab at saying a few words in Italian.
The one telling hiccup in the history of this personal and political alliance was a Berlusconi interview as he began his unsuccessful run for reelection in 2006, in the face of mounting criticism of Italy's part in the Iraq conflict. "I tried repeatedly to convince the American president not to go to war," Berlusconi told an Italian television station. "I was never convinced that war was the best system to achieve democracy in a country that had to emerge from a bloody dictatorship. I maintained that military action should be avoided." That he'd provided Bush with key political cover to forge ahead with the war he supposedly opposed was somehow lost on Berlusconi.
By Monday night's official White House dinner, replete with Maine lobster and Reggiano ravioli, Berlusconi was waxing nostalgic as the President's reign nears its end, declaring that he and Bush will "remain friends forever." Whether the pair continues to meet up in Crawford to review their triumphs is up to them. But their place in history is one judgment beyond their ken.
6 months ago