When George W. Bush arrived in Rome last week to commemorate the city's liberation from the Nazis 60 years ago, he gave Silvio Berlusconi a present: a red box filled with classic scores from the American songbook: George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Ol' Man River. For the Italian Prime Minister, it was a perfect gift not only because he once sang these songs for tips on an Italian cruise ship, but because he has long been an avid consumer and salesman of American myths. "I'm in sintonia in tune with American values, American culture," Berlusconi told TIME Saturday. In the early 1980s, the budding media baron broadcast the Reagan-era fantasies Dallas and Dynasty into Italian homes. Now that he is Prime Minister, he is selling what he calls an "American Dream story" his own to voters, and he's still using TV to do it. Since he owns three of Italy's seven TV stations and has indirect control over three more, it isn't hard for him to get airtime. Take his Forza Italia (Go Italy) party conference, held late last month in a Milan sports arena and televised relentlessly to boost support as Berlusconi heads into this week's European Parliament election. (To mobilize the party faithful, he's running for office as an M.E.P., though he says he won't serve if he wins.) On state-owned RAI 1 and RAI 2 and Berlusconi-owned RETE 4 and CANALE 5, there was Il Cavaliere the knight, as he likes to be called waving from the stage while dry-ice smoke was pumped from the back of the arena; standing in front of a hopeful sky-blue backdrop to offer his latest tough-love plan for Italy's troubled economy; or talking gravely about "our duty to stay faithful to the alliance" in Iraq. But the impresario has a problem: the dry ice, laser-light shows and heroic party anthems "are getting old," says La Stampa political columnist Filippo Ceccarelli, a sometime critic. "What were once considered his virtues the simple language, the spectacle, the ideology of television and consumption are turning out to be his limits. He has simply been overtaken by events."
Consider the big events of last week: Berlusconi's appearances with Bush, the first stop in a presidential D-Day tour meant to remind Europeans of some things they like about America. "George said today that there has never been such a close and understanding relationship between our two countries," Berlusconi told Time. "I was of course very happy to hear him say this."
Many Italians aren't so happy that Berlusconi is Bush's closest ally on the Continent. In one poll last week, 54% of those surveyed called Bush's visit to Italy "inopportune"; in another poll, 41% said they tended to have a favorable view of the U.S. "except for now that there is a Bush Administration." Their Prime Minister has had no such doubts. More than 80% of Italians opposed the war, but Berlusconi sent 2,700 troops to Iraq after Saddam's fall. When 19 Italians died in a November suicide attack in Nasiriyah, many of his countrymen wondered where Berlusconi was taking them. And now a continuing hostage crisis which has already left a Genovese security contractor dead grows more tense as the election nears. In other words, Berlusconi's American Dream strikes a growing number of Italians as a nightmare from which they'd very much like to wake up. "There's fear," says Claudio Caretta, a metalworker from Varese who protested in Rome last week. "You saw what happened in Spain, and you worry that terrorists might try something like that here." As for Berlusconi, "he lets Bush do the thinking. He has no ability to influence real policy."