The End of Bunga Bunga

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on April 26, 2011 in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Giorgio Cosulich/Getty Images)

Silvio Berlusconi, a fixture on the Italian political scene for decades who died this week at age 86, wasn’t the predecessor of Donald Trump. He was the successor to Bill Clinton and the predecessor to Harvey Weinstein. 

There was a time, and it was not ancient history, when the most gauche thing you could do in American political life was to take seriously Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct. And that didn’t start with the Monica Lewinsky matter and Clinton’s impeachment for perjury and other misdeeds. It went all the way back to the Democratic primary and the 1992 election. We were told that Americans—Americans in general but conservatives in particular—were hostage to primitive, old-fashioned, Protestant-fundamentalist assumptions about sexual propriety. Great men, Clinton’s defenders said, have great appetites—look at John F. Kennedy!—and everybody in the world understands this except Americans. 

As Anne Swardson wrote from France in the Washington Post in 1998: “It is widely agreed here that this sort of contretemps, whether justified or not, could not happen in France. The public not only tolerates the oft-stated, but unproven, fact that its leaders stray from the strictures of marriage, it does not care, and neither do the media.” A Europe correspondent reported a conversation with one of his overseas colleagues: “I asked how he would he feel if Wim Kok, the Dutch prime minister, confessed to having oral sex with a 21-year-old intern. ‘At his age? We’d all be proud of him.’”

The European attitude, we were lectured at the time, was “sophisticated.” To which I say: Bunga bunga.

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