Andreotti, the political animal

'Power grinds down those who don't have it', he quipped

06 May, 14:09

    (ANSAmed) - Rome, May 6 - In power for 40 sometimes rocky years until Bribesville scotched his seemingly unstoppable rise to the presidency, seven-time Christian Democrat (DC) premier Giulio Andreotti was the consummate political animal. Nothing if not smart, he made a virtue of pragmatism - though opponents said it bordered on cynicism.

    Some said his ready, sometimes sardonic wit concealed a world-weariness that enabled him to take the toughest decisions with cold dispassion.

    Critics even went as far as to claim his evident religious faith gave him the strength to dip into the murkiest waters of political life.

    It clearly sustained him during his long trials for helping the Mafia and ordering the murder of a bothersome scandal-mongerer - charges which few Italians believed and which the courts eventually rejected, apart from an embarrassing coda.

    His aura of omniscience, that sly, lopsided grin, his hunched but seemingly indestructible frame, and his lightning ripostes all contributed to the Andreotti legend, making him a symbol of Italy during the postwar boom.

    They helped forge a survivor whose nickname was "Belzebu" (the Devil himself) and whose political longevity outstripped any other international stayers.

    Born in Rome in January 1919, Andreotti rose through the DC ranks after a law degree in 1941, under the wing of historic postwar leader Alcide De Gasperi.

    His precocious academic career was detailed in every glowing TV documentary.

    One of the youngest members of the postwar Constitutional assemblies, he marked himself out as a rising star and was to become a multiple minister: premier seven times, defence eight, foreign affairs five, finance and budget twice, and interior once.

    His tenure of such a wide variety of offices must give him at least some credit for the government-prodded growth that turned Italy from a laggard economy into one of the world's biggest economic players.

    The holder of countless records, including that of the shortest government (nine days in 1972), he found time to write a dozen books, mostly on 19th century Rome and pick up 12 honorary degrees from around the world.

    Andreotti's flexible Roman common sense and realism, something he proudly ascribed to his roots in the seen-it-all caput mundi, made it easy for him to take a lead role in coalitions of the most varied hues: from the rightish 'bicolour' alliance with the Liberals in 1972 to the late-70s left-leaning 'national solidarity' governments and on to a series of four-party and five-party line-ups.

    Even when he wasn't fronting things himself, most notably in the mid'80s with the long hiatus of the strong-willed Socialist (PSI) premier Bettino Craxi, he was always pulling most of the strings behind the scenes.

    His acknowledged realpolitik, which extended to foreign affairs, was famously summed up in a 1951 quip resurrected whenever he was involved in some controversy: "Power grinds down those who don't have it." This clear-sighted or cynical philosophy enabled him to make deals with people with whom he had clashed or who had set out to loosen his grip on power - like Craxi for instance.

    The two locked horns most publicly over the kidnapping and murder of Christian Democrat chairman Aldo Moro in 1978, when Craxi disagreed with Andreotti's firmness, supported by the Communists (PCI), in not negotiating with the Red Brigades.

    But it was also known that Craxi, a rising Socialist star determined to turn his party into a progressive force capable of replacing the PCI as top dog on the Left, was unhappy with Andreotti's deals with the Communists and the left wing of the DC.

    The burly, intimidating Craxi branded Andreotti "a fox," adding: "Sooner or later every fox ends up in the fur shop." Mistrust between the two was further fuelled on two occasions.

    The first was in the late '70s when Andreotti invented his typically canny formula of "the two-ovens policy": getting 'bread' from the Socialists and the Communists alternately, so as to avoid paying too high a political price to Craxi.

    The second was in 1982, when Andreotti put all his considerable weight behind nominal reformist Ciriaco De Mita as new DC secretary in the full knowledge that it would further strain relations with the PSI.

    But the following year Andreotti turned another of his somersaults and managed to land the job of foreign minister in Craxi's executive, the first Socialist-led government in Italian postwar history.

    The Andreotti faction in the DC's broad church was always small numerically, despite a large and controversial power base in Sicily, but punched way above its weight in terms of strategy and pointing bigger groups in the direction its leader wanted.

    After settling in the belly of what pundits dubbed the 'White Whale' in the '60s, Andreotti flirted with its liberal left wing in the early 70s before embracing De Mita in the '80s as pressure for reform grew. Moving back to the centre, he dropped De Mita and became premier for the last time in 1989.

    Amidst the maneuvering, he notched up ministerial accomplishments. As defence minister he will be remembered for ordering the shredding of papers on a military secret service scandal in the '70s and overseeing the subsequent reform of the intelligence services.

    In the early '90s, in what some saw as a tactical move aimed at distracting attention from the burgeoning Bribesville probes, he revealed the existence of NATO's 'Gladio' Stay Behind network, seen by the Right as a secret patriotic brotherhood against Communist invasion but by the Left as a shady web implicated in efforts to keep domestic Communists at bay.

    His record in his various stints as foreign minister showed a flexibility of mind, elasticity of principle and focus on national interest that would have done Henry Kissinger proud.

    He was the architect of Italy's pro-Arab policy and its efforts to solve the Mideast crisis - as well as a prime player in the resolution of the Iran-Iraq war - but also a staunch supporter of Italy's allegiance to NATO.

    In true Andreotti fashion, this didn't get in the way of his policy of detente with the eastern bloc, even when the US was branding it an Evil Empire.

    But he was perhaps the first to grasp Italy's potential as a pivotal player between the blocs - despite its acknowledged limited sovereignty inside the US umbrella. In his latter years, before his less prudent southern Italian contacts came back to haunt him, admirers held up Andreotti as an 'eminence grise' of the DC.

    Detractors - and he had plenty of them even before his judicial woes opened a Pandora's Box - saw him instead as the grand puppet master, the man who knew where all the bodies were buried.

    But it was really only those outside politics who pointed the finger.

    Italy is a country whose lawmakers are sometimes seen as coming in two basic models: the idealistic, impassioned radical and the avuncular conservative with a brain like Richelieu and the apparent meekness of a country priest.

    Andreotti was closer to the second type - but he managed to get along famously with the first.

    He was adept at making friends even with those who should have been implacable ideological enemies, such as the charismatic Communist leader Enrico Berlinguer.

    Much later, a common interest in home-town soccer club Roma helped him overcome the diffidence of another calculating customer, Berlinguer's successor Massimo D'Alema, the first ex-Communist to lead Italy.

    Even a gut leftwing supporter like the comic Roberto Benigni paid tribute to the status of Andreotti as some sort of national icon when, in 1979, he erected a statue to the veteran statesman, who'd been out of the premier's office for four years then - an eternity for him.

    "I felt sorry for him so I decided to commemorate him," Benigni said, little knowing that Andreotti would be around for many years to come.

    But the unemotional Roman was pleased with the satirical gesture by the madcap Tuscan.

    Years later he was still telling dignitaries: "I'm the only premier who's had his own statue put up while he's still alive, you know." As for the mounting mutterings against him, people might have called former British Prime Minister Tony Blair 'Teflon Tony' because no charge ever seemed to attach itself to him, but some similar term - "Anti-Stick Andreotti", perhaps - should have been coined for the wily Italian.

    Somehow, Andreotti always seemed to turn accusations against the accuser - even in a Bank of Italy bankruptcy-oversight affair where some suspected him of trumping up a case against senior executives so that a shady Sicilian banker, Michele Sindona, could get off the hook.

    The Mafia-linked Sindona, whom Andreotti once called "the saviour of the lira," died of a poisoned cup of coffee in jail while serving life for the murder of a brave insolvency investigator.

    But it was Andreotti's alleged links to other Mob-tainted Sicilian politicians and his alleged involvement in the 1979 murder of a muckraking journalist, Mino Pecorelli, which landed him in court.

    According to Mafia informants, Pecorelli was about to spill the beans about something Moro told the Red Brigades a year before.

    Unflappable as ever, and unlike some other, more recent politicians, Andreotti underwent his judicial travails in both cases with monkish discipline, sheafs of documents under his arm and wry one-liners ready for the press.

    Only on one occasion did the then-80-year-old Andreotti betray some bitterness against his tormentors, after winning a 1999 acquittal in the Pecorelli case - overturned three years later with a 24-year sentence that sent Italy into a tail-spin.

    "Who's going to give me back these years?" he said, referring to a case that had already dragged on for half a decade.

    "What if I'd died before," he added dryly, remarking that relatives wouldn't have been able to show off souvenir photos with global movers and shakers including Kennedy, Reagan, Adenauer, Kohl, Pope John Paul II and Moro, his old friend and rival.

    The murder conviction had been quashed for "lack of evidence and motive" when Andreotti died, with the old stager having trooped gamely in for years to refute the turncoats. As for the wider Mafia charges, a 2000 acquittal was upheld to mostly widespread relief and jubilation three years later - though some nit-picking leftists noted the judges appeared to have accepted he had cozy ties to mobbed-up figures.

    As ex-Lower House Speaker Luciano Violante of the Democratic Left said: "It's much harder to prove criminal complicity than to show evidence of political complicity." Throughout the judicial reversals and victories, Andreotti's deadpan style and bloodless reactions served him well. But on the day of his Pecorelli acquittal in 1999, Andreotti showed the first chink in his armour of faith and irony. He clearly showed he believed he'd already served his term. Even in that moment of temporary victory, however, Andreotti kept his cool, as he had done through Italy's 20 years of leftist and rightist terrorism, and on the terrible day Moro was kidnapped.

    On that day, March 16, 1978, his sang froid little stirred by an event that sent shock waves across the West, the old political pro duly presented his "national solidarity" government, the first ever not to be opposed by the Communists.

    Some said it was the fox's finest hour.

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