By Bill Wilson
Bill Wilson © 2011
ROME – When we arrived in Rome on May 29 Fernando’s family and friends asked about our thoughts on Prime Minister Berlusconi’s performance toward President Obama at the G8 Summit. Since we had no idea what they were talking about they informed us that during the beginning of the summit meeting Berlusconi had gone straight to President Obama and engaged him in talk about the left wing judges conspiring against him. They said that Obama had no reaction and the Italians viewed this as another embarrassment by Berlusconi. Showing once again he has no sense of what was appropriate behavior. He was so desperate to be seen as having friends in high places that the few minutes talking with Obama was worth the breech of protocol.
The incident was of course the topic of conservation on news talk shows so I got to see the film clip which was even funnier than what had been described to me. Berlusconi made his first bee line to the news cameras that were stationed behind President Obama. The video shows him sayng something to one of the cameramen and pointing to President Obama. I’m sure it was something along the lines of make sure you get this. Then Berlusconi turns and puts his hand on Obama’s shoulder (shades of President Bush but without the massage) and starts talking away. He gets several sentences out before the interpreter runs over and starts telling the President what he is saying. Because it is Italian TV the Italian subtitles appear even before the interpreter so you know what he is saying. The President really didn’t have time to respond because the German Prime Minister Angela Merkel and French President Sarkozy were waiting to get the meeting started. If looks could kill Berlusconi would have been gone. Merkel just rolled her eyes and gave a look that said it all.
Unfortunately for Belusconi he isn’t faring much better on the national scene. His party lost a regional election in Milan, which is something that had never happened before. At the national day celebration on June 2 Belusconi’s body language said that he would have rather been any place else. Because this is the 150th anniversary of Italian unity, this year’s celebration of the founding of the Republic took on added significance. Representatives from countries all over the world and even the secretary General of the United Nations attended the annual national day military parade that was carried live on Italian TV. The United States was represented by Vice President Joe Biden. Spain’s King Juan Carlos and his wife were also in attendance as well as Palestinian Authority President Abbas.
The President of Italy is largely a ceremonial office and the military parade was one of the ceremonial duties he is required to perform. The Prime Minister has no ceremonial role, but obviously on state occasions is included as a constitutional officer with the political power. The focus was rightly on the Prime Minister as he shook hands with every person on the first row of the viewing stand. He got a firm handshake from most and a traditional two cheek kiss from a few. As the parade of military units began the President of Italy was seated two chairs away from Berlusconi and those chairs were placed central to the viewing stand about five feet from the chairs of the other heads of state. During the almost two hour parade there were only several times when the President and the Prime Minister were in the same shot. The first was at the start of the parade when everyone was standing in respect for the units passing by. The President had his arms placed stiffly at his side as did everyone else in the shot with two exceptions. One person had his hands clasped respectfully in front of him. Berlusconi had his arms crossed over his chest like a defiant little child. During the parade when they used shots from the viewing stand they were close ups of the President, not of the entire group. The only other time they included a wide shot Berlusconi was out of his seat saying something to the King of Spain.
In a tricky point of protocol President Karzai of Afghanistan was seated next to US Vice President Biden. As the President of Italy went to shake Karzai’s hand he had to pause because Biden was whispering something in Karzai’s ear. I would love to know what that was about!
See Related: On Scene with Bill Wilson Archive
Bill Wilson is a San Francisco-based veteran photojournalist. Bill embraced photojournalism at the age of eight. In recent years, his photos capture historic record of the San Francisco LGBT community in the Bay Area Reporter (BAR), The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Francisco Examiner, SFist, SFAppeal. Bill has contributed to the Sentinel for the past seven years. Email Bill Wilson at email@example.com.