Does the outcome of last month's election in Italy have any relevance to the U.S.? A youngish center-left candidate who claimed to represent a new politics of hope, "Si puo fare," ("It can be done") lost decisively to a 71-year-old figure of the center-right who is nothing if not a familiar fixture of Italian politics. The loser's resemblance to Barack Obama is not coincidental. Walter Veltroni was the first European politician to promote Obama after the two met in 2005. Veltroni wrote the introduction for the Italian release of "The Audacity of Hope." While he has moved to the center in recent years, Veltroni began his political life in the Communist Party, a biographical detail unforgiven by some voters.
But Silvio Berlusconi pulled out a great victory. And that is where resemblances to American politics must end. Consider what Berlusconi faces. The New York Times reported it this way: "Beginning his third term as prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi on Wednesday pledged unusually forceful measures to solve Italy's deep problems. These steps include new restrictions on illegal immigrants and the use of the military to tackle the longstanding garbage crisis in Naples." The military? To clear garbage?
Your humble correspondent was just in Italy last week and amid many delights (including the gorgeous Amalfi Coast) had the misfortune to spend the better part of a day in Naples. Nothing prepares you for the squalor. The trash is piled up in great hillocks around the city, many as much as one-story high. The stench is oppressive. A great deal of garbage has of course escaped its plastic bags and decorates the streets and sidewalks. Everywhere your eye falls, even in the district surrounding the Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace), blight reigns. Having just seen Rome and Sorrento, Naples was a jar.
My friend Michael Ledeen, an expert on Italian fascism, Eurocommunism, the history of Italy, terrorism, and many other subjects, is completing a book on Naples. He compares it to New Orleans, another corrupt city. Both cities are doomed, he explains. New Orleans, it need hardly be recalled post-Katrina, lies below sea level in the path of hurricanes. Naples sits right below Mount Vesuvius, which has erupted dozens of times since its catastrophic explosion in A.D. 79, most recently in 1944.
The question now is whether the Italian government has the wherewithal to deal with the literal and figurative mess. Italy is famed for its ungovernability. The trash has piled up in the streets of Naples because the dumps are full and when a new dump or incinerator is proposed, there is loud protest from those in proximity to the planned site. The NIMBY impulse is killing a great European city.