AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. Italians flooded the streets in Rome last night after Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi resigned. It was the end of an era - an era that tainted Italy's international image and helped bring Europe's third-largest economy to the brink of bankruptcy. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has this look back.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Humility is not a Berlusconi virtue.
SILVIO BERLUSCONI: (Through Translator) I am, by far, the best prime minister Italy ever had.
POGGIOLI: He survived tales of bunga-bunga orgies and more than 30 prosecutions for corruption, tax fraud, and paying for sex with a minor. A fraction of this would destroy political careers elsewhere, but Berlusconi held unprecedented media control in a democracy. It all started with a 1970s game show he promoted, where a caller's right answer prompts a housewife in the studio to strip a piece of clothing. Thirty years later, he has an empire - TV networks, newspapers, publishing houses, insurance companies, a top soccer team and much, much more. Erik Gandini is the director of the documentary "Videocracy."
ERIK GANDINI: If someone had told me that this was the beginning of the new empire, a huge media empire, and a new political order where the owner of this media empire became also the prime minister, and this whole story would start with a striptease program, I would laugh.
POGGIOLI: Berlusconi was a cruise ship crooner before entering construction. Then, through political patronage, he created a near-monopoly of commercial TV. He entranced viewers with a glitzy carousel of scantily-dressed showgirls. With 80 percent of Italians getting information only from TV, the adoring audience was a ready-made electorate. When corruption scandals wiped out most political parties, he quickly created a new one and three months later, swept to power.
With no conflict-of-interest legislation, the billionaire Berlusconi not only kept his own TV networks, he also won control of all state-run broadcasting when he became prime minister. His rags-to-riches story wooed the many anti-establishment Italians. He sold them a rosy dream of prosperity, lower taxes, and a slimmer and non-intrusive state. But James Walston, international relations professor at Rome's American University, says it's an open secret that Berlusconi entered politics to avoid trials and safeguard his empire.
JAMES WALSTON: He managed to save his companies, and he has managed to avoid the worst of his criminal prosecutions, either by changing the law or by taking his cases beyond the statute of limitations.
POGGIOLI: A key tool, says author Alexander Stille, was a new electoral law allowing party chiefs to pick candidates.
ALEXANDER STILLE: You've seen this profusion of beautiful girls and fashion models and TV stars and showgirls, in Parliament. Therefore, Parliament, which should have a kind of checking effect on the executive, has become an empty power.
POGGIOLI: He chose a former nude calendar girl as minister of gender equality, and boasted about his facelifts and hair transplants. Filmmaker Gandini says Berlusconi turned Italy into one, big reality show.
GANDINI: You see that his own personality, his own taste, is mirrored in this flow of images that have been washing over the country during the past 30 years. And that's, for me, like a science fiction idea. I mean, the idea that one man's personality can be so totalizing, culturally, over a whole country.
POGGIOLI: He lowered some taxes, but tax evasion and corruption are soaring. Organized crime rules in many parts of the country. The economy is stagnant. Debt is skyrocketing. But Berlusconi's personal wealth is reported to have at least tripled. Foreign policy was a stage to flaunt his salesmanship. But, says James Walston, Berlusconi's propensity for school-boy pranks, off-color jokes and racist remarks left him increasingly shunned.
WALSTON: Combined with his inability to govern, that meant that he could no longer be accepted by the international community, and by his own country.
POGGIOLI: With his pancake makeup and his hair a color and a texture that do not exist in nature, Berlusconi became a prisoner of his own virtual world. Just last week, he denied there's a crisis, claiming restaurants and vacation resorts are full. But financial markets handed down the final verdict: Berlusconi was the problem. And when the stock market panicked, instead of convening his cabinet, Berlusconi hunkered down with his family and business managers - just like the tycoon lampooned by comedian Roberto Benigni.
ROBERTO BENIGNI: (Italian spoken)
POGGIOLI: I'm the boss. I have banks and newspapers, villas and castles. I have women galore - everything is mine.
BENIGNI: (Italian spoken)
POGGIOLI: Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.