In 2010, when he was under investigation for the notorious all-night parties that briefly brought the expression “bunga bunga” into most of the languages of Western Europe, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, then 74, remarked that chasing teenage girls around at his age might not be to everyone’s liking, but it had an upside: “It beats being gay.” Two years had passed since he had opined, during a news conference in Moscow, that he and Russian premier Dmitri Medvedev would have an easy time working with the newly elected American president, Barack Obama, who was “young, handsome, and tanned.” By then, people had nearly forgotten that time in 2002 when Berlusconi had made the two-fingered cuckold gesture behind Spanish foreign minister Josep Piqué during a group photo.

These are the episodes to which most commentary has gravitated since Berlusconi died on Monday at the age of 86. They occasion mild amusement among those who look back on Berlusconi as a funny and likable guy. They occasion dudgeon and even outrage on the part of those who see him as a menace to Italy’s democratic institutions and “values.” But such episodes were not what the career of Berlusconi was really about. Berlusconi was the longest serving prime minister in his country’s 80-year postwar history—still the only one, in fact, to serve out a full five-year term. If he towered over Italian life for a generation, it is not because Italians are stupid. It is because three decades ago, he stopped in its tracks a movement by technocrats to lay hold of the Italian state. Italy was not the only place this happened. To the bewilderment of many Western publics, the “triumph of democracy” in the Cold War did not bring more democracy. It brought a growing power for the media, the courts, and other cultural elites.

“Berlusconi has been called a harbinger of Donald Trump.”

Berlusconi has been called a harbinger of Donald Trump. He, too, was a top businessman when he decided he ought to get his country’s top job. But that ends the list of things the two had in common. Berlusconi had a fine and subtle intellect of a conventional and even an academic kind. He excelled in Latin and Greek at the Salesian academy he attended as a young man in Milan, he excelled in law school, and he excelled studying at the Sorbonne. Of course, you would never know this: It is the kind of hidden impressiveness that Italians invented the word sprezzatura to describe.

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