Let's start off with a multiple-choice question. Which of these statements was made by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi?
"It's better to like beautiful girls than to be gay.''
"We would all like to be tanned like Naomi Campbell and Obama."
"Another reason to invest in Italy is that we have beautiful secretaries.''
If you chose all three, congratulations! Feel free to take over the reins of Europe's fourth-largest economy. Really, you may be better suited than the man who currently holds the job.
Of course, Mr. Berlusconi may no longer hold that job at this time next week, because the leathery operative, whose political life has been harder to end than Nosferatu's, faces a confidence vote in the two houses of the Italian parliament on Tuesday. The rebellion by Mr. Berlusconi's renegade former ally Gianfranco Fini may finally accomplish what years of fraud and corruption allegations, rumours of dalliances with underage prostitutes, idiotic remarks and tampering with the Italian constitution could not: Drive a stake through this former cruise-ship singer's heart.
It will be ever so slightly sad to see him go, in the same way that it's sad to watch the final credits of a Three Stooges movie. Whom will we laugh at now? No more Berlusconi-hosted "bunga-bunga" sex parties (the name, wonderfully, came from Moammar Gadhafi). No more lingerie models as political appointees. No more offending the Queen by shouting at G20 summits.
The one thing we do have to look forward to, according to one of the WikiLeaks cables, is the Prime Minister's post-politics adventure: Will he build houses for the poor, like Jimmy Carter? Raise funds for global health, like Bill Clinton? No, he plans to open the Berlusconi Leadership Academy, to train the skirt-chasers and influence-peddlers of tomorrow – sorry, that should be "Italy's brightest young minds."
In one of the cables, Mr. Berlusconi is described giving the U.S. ambassador to Rome a tour of his new school, which "he envisions [as] an environment where Italy's best and brightest live and study, taught by world leaders like Blair and Clinton." I can see the dress code now: gentlemen, suits and ties; ladies, bikinis (optional).
In the coming week, there will be anti-Berlusconi rallies in Italy, a repeat of last year's "No Berlusconi Day." Italians are perfectly aware of how the world views their leader, currently in his third term as Prime Minister. Ask young Italians and they shake their heads. One 25-year-old Tuscan I know said, simply, "It's too embarrassing to talk about."
And yet, as Charles Young writes in his book Impunity: Berlusconi's Goal and its Consequences, "his gaffes endear him to more people than they offend." The Prime Minister not only controls Italy's largest broadcasters through his Mediaset empire, but also has political control of the public broadcasters. He is the master of the populist sound bite, and roguish us-against-them propaganda. "He may often lie," Mr. Young writes, "but he does so in clear, simple, accessible language."
Yes, it's a thigh-slapper – and that's part of the problem. Italians hardly need to reinforce stereotypes of them as corrupt and buffoonish. (And I say this as someone with a vowel at the end of her name, who has been asked more than once, "Did your dad work for the Mafia?") Towed along behind Mr. Berlusconi's grinning-clown act is a country with a gasping economy, plagued by garbage riots in Naples and student riots in Milan. The Prime Minister seems a lot less hilarious when you realize he has spent much of his three terms trying to alter Italian law so that he will not have to face prosecution on corruption and fraud charges.
In the past week alone, there have been new allegations that Mr. Berlusconi used government funds to fly a Bulgarian actress to the Venice Film Festival where he ordered that she be given "some kind of award." (At least she's an adult; Mr. Berlusconi's ex-wife has accused him of consorting with minors.) And almost no attention was paid to the Berlusconi bits of the WikiLeaks cables – he stays up too late partying to be an effective leader, and he's rumoured to get kickbacks from Russia over energy contracts – because really, what's another pebble on a Mount Etna of scandal?
If he loses the confidence vote, will this mean the end of the Berlusconi age, and if so, what next? Author Bill Emmott, long a thorn in the Prime Minister's side (he was editor of the Economist when it ran the famous "Why Berlusconi is unfit to lead Italy" cover), has written a book called Forza, Italia: Come Ripartire Dopo Berlusconi. In other words, Courage, Italy: How to Start Again After Berlusconi. If a new era begins, it could be the start of a beautiful un-friendship.