Obama joke by premier has Italy in uproar

Italians never quite know whether to laugh or cry at Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. But many reacted with incredulity and outrage after the prime minister, visiting Moscow on Thursday, amiably called the first African American president-elect in U.S. history “young, handsome and suntanned.”

Berlusconi made the remark while meeting President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia, saying Sen. Barack Obama's good looks, his youth and his so-called suntan were “all the qualities” for Medvedev and the future president to “develop a good working relationship.”

Many Italian newspapers gave the comment nearly as much front-page attention as Obama's victory itself. The journalist Curzio Maltese wrote in the center-left La Repubblica that “bookmakers wouldn't even take bets” on how long it would take for Berlusconi to let slip another of his famous gaffes. “Mr. Berlusconi never fails to live up to our worst expectations.”

Maltese added that just when Obama's victory was “inspiring billions of people” to consider “democracy, the most extraordinary triumph of humanity after centuries of bloodshed and intolerance,” Berlusconi instead contributed “a miserable, vulgar and racist remark, for which he didn't even have the courage to take responsibility or the dignity to apologize.”

A billionaire populist, Berlusconi is adept at deflating such lofty talk. He said his remark had been a compliment and that his critics lacked a sense of humor.

“If you want to get a degree in idiocy, I won't stop you,” La Repubblica quoted him as saying. “I say whatever I think.”

He said the Italian left was wrong about everything, “including their lack of a sense of humor.” He added: “Too bad for them. God save us from imbeciles.”

The center-left opposition leader, Water Veltroni, had earlier called such “cabaret one-liners” unworthy of a statesman and asked Berlusconi to apologize.

In Brussels, Belgium, on Friday, when Berlusconi was asked by a reporter whether he would apologize, he said whoever had asked the question should be added to the “list of imbeciles,” Bloomberg News reported.

The episode raised a question: Why, of all the problems Italy is facing – a weak economy, higher mortgage rates – would Berlusconi get more attention for his off-the-cuff remark than for his political program?

“Because it's the last straw,” said a political commentator, Beppe Severgnini. “By now, Berlusconi isn't a political case; he's a psychological case.”