- The Washington Times - Friday, April 10, 2009

ROME (AP) - Within hours of Italy’s devastating earthquake, Premier Silvio Berlusconi was in a helicopter surveying the damage.

Over the next few days, he held the hands of survivors in tent camps, and, a red helmet on his head, walked amid the rubble with rescue officials.

Mixing can-do confidence with somber touches, Berlusconi is winning praise for his handling of Italy’s deadliest earthquake in three decades _ despite a dubious attempt at humor about the homeless having a beach vacation at the state’s expense.

“It is in these emergency situations that he’s at his best,” said Renato Schifani, Senate speaker and longtime Berlusconi ally.

Optimism is a key ingredient of Berlusconi’s charisma and there was plenty on display even in the face of this tragedy _ a 6.3-magnitude quake that has brought the Abruzzo central Italian region to its knees, killing almost 300 people and reducing entire blocks to piles of rubble.

He seemed more than a little off-key, however, when he told some survivors to spend time at the beach at the government’s expense in one of the seaside hotels that offered to take in the homeless. “Put on sun block,” he told one woman. At another point he likened living in a tent city to being out camping.

The notoriously gaffe-prone Berlusconi said his comments were meant to infuse the survivors with optimism _ and indeed they were greeted with applause by those present, even if they raised eyebrows farther away.

“Sometimes one has to smile even in a tragedy like this,” the premier said Wednesday. “Without optimism, one cannot overcome difficulties and cannot achieve the hardest goals.”

Late responses to natural disasters have proven politically costly to leaders around the world; former U.S. President George W. Bush, for example, came under an avalanche of criticism for his handling of the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe.

But Berlusconi snapped into action immediately.

He scrapped a visit to Russia that had been planned for Monday, and flew to the disaster area on three consecutive days, rattling off rescue statistics to reporters. Calling in to a TV show, he gave orders to his interior minister on where to dispatch more help.

The 72-year-old conservative shook hands with survivors in tent cities and comforted an old lady as he toured L’Aquila, the regional capital and hardest hit city. At the funeral for some 200 victims Friday, he reportedly urged “chin up” to one mourner who was kneeling.

Later, the billionaire told reporters that _ as thousands of his fellow Italians have done in recent days _ he would offer survivors a place to stay at one of his homes. The former media mogul and his family have villas along Sardinia’s luxurious seaside and in Milan’s suburbs.

“I don’t agree with his politics. But we have to thank him for his presence,” said Ilde Iarossi, a 56-year-old mourning the loss of her boss at the funeral. “I hope that he will do everything that he promised and help L’Aquila.”

Images of a somber Berlusconi at the funeral, his head low, were in sharp contrast with photos snapped at international summits just a few days ago: Berlusconi posing and smiling between U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev; Berlusconi loudly calling out to “Mister Obama!” after a group photo at Buckingham Palace, earning a joking reprimand by Queen Elizabeth II.

Nearly a year into his third stint as premier, Berlusconi was already faring well in polls, his leadership unchallenged by a center-left opposition in shambles. The rescue efforts he oversaw won praise even from his rivals, in an unusual display of unity for a country where, normally, nothing is above the political divide.

While there have been complaints over long lines at toilets or for meals, and that heaters in the tents didn’t work, most of the survivors were thankful that relief operations made life a little more bearable.

“We’ve done miracles,” said Berlusconi, who at one point said he feared the dead would reach 1,000.

Speaking of himself in the third person, Berlusconi also said this week: “The premier is greatly satisfied for having beaten the endurance record: 44 straight hours without going to bed.”

___

Associated Press Writers Vanessa Gera and Ariel David in L’Aquila contributed to this report.


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