Berlusconi’s antics are everybody’s business

I am going to write about Silvio Berlusconi and his so-called private life. But before I do, I want to ask you a question. Could you write a serious biography of Mao Zedong and miss out the girls and the drugs? If you did, it would be a little read book.

Mao liked the girls. Even in his mid-seventies, this four-times- married man regularly invited three, four or even five women at a time into his oversized bed. The word “invited” overstates the extent of the willing co-operation of the other participants. Actually, Mao liked the boys, too, requiring that handsome young male attendants came to his chamber to give him nightly groin massages. He was pretty keen on the drugs too. He suffered from sleeplessness and, while trying to resolve it, became addicted to sleeping pills. In the 1930 there was Veronal, then sodium amytal and, finally, chloral hydrate, which induced euphoria in him.

There was something else he was pretty keen on. Brutal, sadistic murder. He liked to participate if he could, particularly enjoying slow public executions. The use of siu-biao, a twin-edged knife with a long handle, was a particular favourite. If he couldn’t take part, he would enjoy hearing accounts of torture. Seventy million people died unnecessarily as a result of Mao’s policies.

In her book Evil Genes, a tremendous volume on the psychology of dictators and other manipulative individuals, Barbara Oakley draws on accounts of Mao’s vices to pen a sharp portrait of him. She concludes that he was “a perfect borderpath”. In other words, his symptoms — his addictions, his selfishness, his dysfunctional personal relationships, his sadism — suggest that he suffered from a recognisable condition, borderline personality disorder.

Tony Benn (who, by the way, described Mao in his diary as the greatest man of the 20th century) used to have a phrase that he repeated in almost every interview in the early 1980s. Do you remember it? “What matters is not the personalities, it is the issues.” And it is certainly possible to attempt to explain Mao and his terrible crimes entirely with reference to ideology and the failings of communism.

But Oakley’s account, which emphasises Mao’s personal failings, is far more convincing, isn’t it? Especially when one reads in most of his biographies that he didn’t much believe in communism at all. It merely helped him on his way.

Mao’s is an extreme case, but it is an instructive one. It is impossible to describe the actions of political leaders merely by looking at their public life and professed ideas. It is necessary to understand their private lives and character. Every historian realises this, which is why all serious biographers do their best to get under the skin of their subjects and to tell the story of their life off-stage.

All of which is my way of answering Italy’s big political question of the moment — does Silvio Berlusconi’s relationship with escort girls and younger women behind his wife’s back really matter? — with the resounding response: “Yes, of course it matters.”

It is not necessary to resolve every disputed Italian allegation to conclude that Mr Berlusconi has not been behaving with great propriety. Nor can one view the promotion to senior positions by his party of attractive women with little political experience with anything other than a raised eyebrow — or even two raised eyebrows. But worse than all of this is Mr Berlusconi’s assertion that none of this is anybody’s business besides his, and his consequent refusal to answer any questions about it.

The private life of a statesman is not, and cannot be, entirely private. It provides an insight into his character. And character is an essential part of leadership. Indeed it is probably the most important part of it.

Take Bill Clinton. His numerous extramarital affairs might be considered nobody’s business but his and Hillary’s. Indeed, the couple made that explicit argument during the New Hampshire primaries while denying that Bill had had a relationship with Gennifer Flowers.

Except that we now know two things. First, that the denial was a lie and that he did have a relationship with her. So the future President was a fluent liar. And, second, that his sexual relationships were the mark of a man who, whatever his other great qualities, was neither trustworthy nor self-disciplined.

Every voter can make his or her own mind up about whether these characteristics disqualified him from the presidency. All I am saying is that it would have been nice to know about them.

Now, anyone advancing the idea that people’s private lives and what they reveal about their character should remain private, always receives in response three initials: JFK. We now know — journalists knew at the time but didn’t report it — that John F. Kennedy was an inveterate womaniser. And yet his reputation is as a great president. His womanising and party lifestyle? Irrelevant tittle-tattle.

Except that it wasn’t. One biography after another has revealed how Kennedy’s inappropriate behaviour was a security risk. His relationship with a gangster’s moll corrupted his election effort. And David Owen makes a compelling case, in his book In Sickness and in Power, that JFK’s out-of-control drug use influenced his conduct in arms negotiations.

Silvio Berlusconi is an ally in receipt of state secrets. He is the dominant Italian politician of the era. So of course his character matters. And of course the answers to persistent questions about his conduct can help us to understand his character.

You cannot behave as Mr Berlusconi has behaved and argue that it is a private matter. The parties, the girls, the gifts — they are issues of state.

Daniel Finkelstein