Page last updated at 15:07 GMT, Monday, 15 June 2009 16:07 UK

'Tanned' Berlusconi heads for US

Barack Obama, Silvio Berlusconi, Dmitri Medvedev

By Stephen Mulvey
BBC News

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's joke about the newly-elected Barack Obama being "young, handsome and sun-tanned" hangs over him on his first visit to Washington since the election.

The gag was widely regarded as offensive. Hundreds of Italians wrote to the New York Times to apologise.

Before boarding his flight on Sunday, Mr Berlusconi made a mischievous reference to the scandal, saying that he was heading for Washington "handsome and tanned" himself.

His own response to the wave of criticism that greeted his comment in November was incomprehension: "How can you take such a great compliment negatively?"

So, is there any unease in Italy that the prime minister will offend his host in Washington?

Polarised society

A lot of his supporters think it's great
James Walston, professor of international relations, American University in Rome

Some Italians are "extremely concerned" says James Walston, professor of international relations at the American University in Rome - but a roughly equal number are quite relaxed about the prime minister's occasional lapses into political incorrectness.

"He always does it, whatever his minders try and do - they cannot control him when he starts ad-libbing, and he loves it.

"But a lot of his supporters think it's great. They thought the 'sun-tan' remark was either funny, or quite appropriate.

"A week ago he said Milan was an 'African town' just because there are a lot of non-white faces there. His supporters in [the Berlusconi party] Forza Italia thought that was fun.

"It just shows how polarised Italian society is."

Beppe Severgnini, columnist for Corriere della Sera and author of La Bella Figura - A Field Guide to the Italian Mind, thinks the risk of a PR disaster in Washington is low.

'No racist'

He points out that Mr Berlusconi does not speak English, Mr Obama does not speak Italian, and they will only meet for one hour to discuss preparations for the G8 summit, which Italy is hosting next month.

Italy's prime minister is no racist, he adds.

The world leaders were posing with the Queen for a photograph

"The problem is that he never considers what other people, especially abroad, may make of what he says... He doesn't have the necessary sensitivity and he doesn't care about other people's sensitivity, which is what drives so many people crazy around the world."

Maria Sanminiatelli of the Associated Press points out a "striking contrast" between the gaffe-prone Mr Berlusconi and a US president "with a reputation for phenomenal self-control - hence his nickname, 'No Drama Obama'."

Mr Obama has also shown that he can take Mr Berlusconi's sometimes unpredictable behaviour in his stride.

While the Queen gave the Italian PM a ticking off at April's G20 summit in London - for shouting to get Mr Obama's attention - photographs show Mr Obama looking relaxed with the prime minister's arm around his shoulder, in a pose for the cameras.

Italian media also reported that Mr Obama and Mr Berlusconi had a "long cordial" telephone conversation, within hours of the "sun-tan" gaffe in November.

Villa pictures

We could not be in a more embarrassing position than we are now
Enrico Palandri, University College London

Professor Walston says the meeting is an important one for Mr Berlusconi, the third EU leader to be received by Mr Obama in the White House, after Gordon Brown and Brian Cowen.

A statesmanlike performance could help him burnish his image at home, after a series of awkward news stories:

  • An investigation into possible misuse of the official prime ministerial jet, used to ferry guests to Mr Berlusconi's villa in Sardinia
  • Publication of photographs in European media, showing men and women cavorting semi-naked at the villa
  • Accusations from his wife, who has launched divorce proceedings, that he consorts with minors

The fact that Italy's political system allows Mr Berlusconi to take such blows without facing a challenge to his leadership is, for Italian writer Enrico Palandri, more worrying than any individual gaffe he might make in the US.

"Mr Berlusconi is going round representing Italy," says Mr Palandri, a professor at University College London.

"Even if he does badly he won't be in an embarrassing position - because we could not be in a more embarrassing position than we are now."

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