Silvio No Madder than the Rest of Us

Politics - October 2, 2021

Voters should decide who can run for office, not judges or psychiatrists…

In July 1940, a month after the Soviet Red Army occupied Estonia, the country’s President, Konstantin Päts, was arrested and first deported to Ufa in Bashkir, but then imprisoned in Butyrka for a while until he was locked up in one mental hospital after another in the Soviet Union, where his forced ‘treatment’ was justified by his ‘persistent claiming of being the President of Estonia’. Päts died almost 82 years old in 1956, still confined. I was reminded of this tragic story when I read yesterday in the lively online magazine Unherd that judges in Milan had in September this year ordered former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to undergo psychiatric evaluation by doctors of their choice. They are hearing a case against Berlusconi in which he says that he gave presents to some young girls, out of generosity, whereas he is charged with having paid them for sex. The judges’ order with which Berlusconi has refused to comply has been widely criticised in Italy, even by left-wing commentators. One of them, Piero Sansonetti, says that Italy is not a democracy, but a ‘judicial dictatorship’. He writes that the aim of the decision is to prevent Berlusconi from being elected President of Italy next January and taking up residence in the Quirinale, the presidential palace in Rome: ‘The judges said to themselves: with a psychiatric examination we block everything. Either he does not accept it, and then we win the trial, or he accepts it, we get him declared mad and his dream of the Quirinale is dead.’ I agree with Sansonetti that this is outrageous. In a democracy, under normal circumstances, the voters, and not doctors or judges, should decide who is fit for office. Least of all should such experts try to disqualify politicians on the pretext of madness.

The Strange Case of Jonas Jonsson from Hrifla

It may come as a surprise that in Iceland we had a vaguely similar case in February 1930. Three years earlier a minority government of the rural-based Progressives had been formed with the support of the Social Democrats, replacing a conservative government. One of the three ministers, Jonas Jonsson from Hrifla, Minister of Justice, Health, and Education, was a forceful character who wanted to take on what he saw as being the establishment, the old boy network which had hitherto ruled the country. He ordered several investigations of right-wing officials, and then indicted some of them; he appointed almost solely leftists to jobs in the administration; and he conducted a ferocious campaign in speeches and newspaper articles against the conservatives (who were, as is their wont, alas, too frightened to fight and too fat to flee). Jonsson soon became embroiled in a dispute with the Icelandic Medical Association which wanted to control appointments in the health sector. When he as Health Minister repeatedly rejected their advice, maintaining his aggressive and almost febrile manner, some doctors began to suspect that he was mad. On 19 February 1930, a psychiatrist at a mental hospital in Reykjavik, Helgi Tomasson, paid him a visit and told him and his wife that there seemed to be something abnormal about his behaviour and that he should perhaps seek medical treatment. Earlier, Tomasson had met with a few other concerned doctors to discuss the matter.

Jonsson thought, not unreasonably, that this was the beginning of an attempt to have him confined to a lunatic asylum, or, as he put it himself, buried alive. His response came on 26 February in a long but soberly written newspaper article titled ‘The Big Bomb’ where he argued that this was just another political attack against him. The article was a sensation, and Jonsson gained much sympathy as many thought that the doctors had gone too far. Jonsson might be bellicose and excitable, but he was not mad. In April Jonsson fired Tomasson and tried also to hinder him from getting jobs in the other Nordic countries. However, in 1932 Jonsson had to resign, and a conservative government minister reappointed Tomasson to his old position at the mental hospital in Reykjavik. Jonsson did not serve as government minister again, although he remained quite influential in Icelandic politics for quite some time, becoming a strong anti-communist. I think that possibly Tomasson and the other doctors acted in good faith, but they displayed an amazing professional arrogance and even abuse of position. Voters, not psychiatrists, should decide who can run for office.

The Even Stranger Case of Earl K. Long

Jonas Jonsson from Hrifla never made it to the funny farm. But so did Governor Earl K. Long of Louisiana. He was the younger brother of Huey P. Long, a populist Democrat who was a powerful figure in Louisiana politics till his assassination in 1935. Huey whom some saw as the prototype of an American dictator inspired two well-known novels, It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis and All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. Earl was no less colourful than his older brother. An inveterate politician, apt at courting voters and handing out favours, he once told his rivals: ‘While the rest of ’em are sleeping, I’m politicking.’ Earl K. Long was twice elected as governor of Louisiana for a four-year term, in 1948 and 1956. During his second gubernatorial term he fell out with his wife Blanche, as he was having an affair with a stripper, Blaze Starr (who was almost forty years younger than him). He was also drinking excessively and shouting at his adversaries in meetings. His wife took the unusual step, in conjunction with Louisiana’s director of hospitals Jesse Bankston, of having Long confined to a mental hospital, but wanted to do this outside his state where he could not use his gubernatorial powers.

On 30 May 1959, the governor was strapped down in a trolley and flown to a mental hospital in Galveston, Texas. The doctors had been told that Long had agreed to being admitted, but soon found out otherwise. Long managed to reach a compromise with his wife that he would voluntarily return to Louisiana and enter a mental hospital in New Orleans. Having spent only a day there, he left, telling his wife that he had only promised to go there without specifying for how long. His wife however persuaded a judge to sign papers confining Long to a mental hospital in Mandeville, Louisiana, to which he was hauled, screaming and cursing. But this was a state institution, and Long was still the governor. From his hospital room he was able to call a meeting of the State Hospital Board and have Bankston fired. The new director of Louisiana’s hospitals promptly fired the director of the Mandeville hospital and a new director released Long. This time a judge refused to sign papers of confinement, and on 26 June 1959 Long swept a free man out of a courtroom. The affair had not affected his popularity, and in 1960 he ran unopposed for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, but he died of a heart attack before the elections. Again, it seems to me, as it did to the voters in Louisiana, that Long’s confinement was an abuse of position.

Extraordinary Achievements

Fortunately, we are not living under totalitarianism so that Silvio Berlusconi will not be treated like Konstantin Päts. The Milan judges may have the desire, but they lack the ability to strap Berlusconi down in a trolley. Of course he is not mad, although he certainly has the ability to make some people mad at him. He is a man of extraordinary achievements, both in making money for himself and in saving Italy from communism at the crucial moment in 1993–1994 when the old political system of the country crumbled. I would only offer two serious criticisms of him as Italy’s political leader: he should have done more both to curb the monopoly power of labour unions and to make the pension funds sustainable. Despite this he would richly deserve to become President of Italy. I have had the opportunity to have a serious conversation with Berlusconi once, at a small luncheon given in his honour by Icelandic Prime Minister David Oddsson at Thingvellir in the spring of 2002. He came across as a joyous, pleasant, charming man, obviously used to being the centre of attention, and not averse to it, either. We briefly talked about his compatriot Machiavelli, and Berlusconi graciously signed my copy of his edition in Italian of Machiavelli’s Il principe. We also discussed Italian politics and I asked him why the distinguished journalist Indro Montanelli was so hostile to him, as he mostly agreed with our shared ideas and policies. I had followed this during my two stints as Visiting Professor in Italy. ‘Oh, he simply doesn’t like anyone else to occupy a central role on the stage, as I came to do,’ Berlusconi said and laughed. I am afraid that this applies to some others as well, including the not-so-great inquisitors of Milan. Unlike many other politicians, Berlusconi is not below envy.