The Italian Way

Gianni Agnelli has been dead for 13 years but still his name resonates when people discuss Italy, style, or the Fiat automobile company. Gianni was the founder’s grandson, and became Fiat’s president sometime during the Sixties. Throughout his life—one I was privileged to observe in my youth—Gianni fought with all the powers he controlled in the media to combat his reputation of being a playboy. An extremely handsome man who dressed impeccably and had great style, Gianni nevertheless could not resist the pleasures of women and cocaine, in that order. A great seducer of women, he nevertheless tried desperately to go straight, whatever that means, once he turned 60, becoming a senator for life, hobnobbing with Henry Kissinger and various European heads of state, but still the rumors persisted. The Agnelli family was by far the most powerful and richest in the land of pasta, controlling newspapers, T.V. stations, heavy industries, and, of course, Fiat. Now you’d think the head of that family-—an extremely intelligent man like Gianni—would ignore the gossip, take hold of the reins, and actually change Italian politics for the better. But no. He never even considered running; he just had his sister Suni appointed Secretary of State and various buddies sent to the senate.

Agnelli played it safe as Fiat’s head. With 200,000 workers in Turin alone, the protective tariffs kept Fiat humming along until the E.U. opened up the European markets. Then Fiat had to come crawling to America for help, hence the Chrysler-Fiat deal sealed after Gianni’s death that has been a bonanza for both companies. “Ah, if only Gianni had gone into politics” is a lament I have heard hundreds of times throughout my life. And I always answer it with, “It would have been, plus ça change, nothing more.”

If Gianni played it as safe as he did with Fiat, why would he had ventured more with the fate of a nation? Which Berlusconi did. Berlusconi famously began his career as a singer on a liner, yet ended up Italy’s richest man. And as a three-time prime minister. Trump haters now compare The Donald to Berlusconi, but fail to note that the Italian was in the midst of radically changing a corrupt judiciary and political system when he was stymied by the very system he was trying to do away with. His private life did not help. Italy is still Italy, corruption and all, and still the most fun country to visit in Europe.

So, do politicians trump (pun intended) businessmen, or vice versa? In my own country, we have terrific businessmen  that are self-made and who control politicians. It has never been the other way around. Onassis ran Olympic and a large fleet from his yacht, summoning prime ministers at a moment’s notice. So did my papa, at least for a while. In Germany, Europe’s richest and most productive country, the world of business and politics live happily side by side, and work “suzamen,” together. In the land of cheese, nothing works because the unions control the streets, and the politicians give in time and again. Hence nothing works except for terrorism. In Britain, of course, the daughter of a grocer changed things around and turned the sick man of Europe into the lion it is today. She put business first, broke the unions, and freed the markets. Which brings me to the “good old U.S. of A.”

Will a businessman like The Donald make a good president? I happen to think he’ll make a very good one, but I also fear that a small-time hustler like Hillary will prevail. Henry Ford II was, at times, a bore of a man, but he saved a great company from ruin, and turned it back into its rightful place. Would he have made a good politician? I doubt it, too apt to say the truth, but then so does Donald Trump. Would any of the Silicon Valley billionaire-nerds do well in Washington? Not bloody likely, says Taki. Zuckerberg has the charm of a Manson follower, and the Twitter and Apple biggies would not see the common interest if it reared up and kicked them in their ample derrières. No, Silicon Valley boys have the charm of a cobra, and are just as deadly. Give me The Donald any day; at least his women are O.K. (Just O.K.)

Dan Ludwig was the greatest American shipowner who lost billions trying to develop the Amazon. He would have made a strong president, but would a strong businessman like Joe Kennedy have been any better than his martyred son? JFK was not a successful president—too cautious—and LBJ was a terrible president because he wasn’t cautious enough. But he was a good (crooked) businessman. Go figure, as they used to say in Brooklyn.