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Italy: The Touch That Failed

4 minute read

It began the way any Italian comic opera should: amid flowers, panoply and applause. The fanfare last fall was for little Italian Foreign Minister Amintore Fanfani, off in New York greeting the Pope, making speeches and generally cutting a bella figura as the first of his nation to be honored with the presidency of the U.N. General Assembly. Then—omen of trouble—came the first slip: he fell on an icy New York sidewalk, mildly injuring his leg.

As the mishap hit the headlines back home, all Italy chuckled. Fanfani had hardly smoothed down his dignity and limped away when the next blow came. He found himself involved in a Hanoi “peace feeler” to the U.S. that turned out to be a dismal flop. Of course, he felt he was only doing his duty—that it was the responsibility of any statesman to pass along to the President of the U.S. the slightest intimation of an end to the bloody Viet Nam war. The folks back home, however, were less impressed than amused at this “amateur peacemaking.” Particularly since Fanfani had been misled by a friend he reveres, but whom most of Italy considers a buffoon.

Big Saints. The friend was Giorgio La Pira, known as “the Saint” to his admirers, who credit even his garments with healing powers. Saint or quaint (and a law professor at the University of Florence), he came by both reputations as mayor of Florence in the 1950s when, trying as a Christian Democratic politician to beat the Communists at their own social-welfare game, he was largesse to a fault. La Pira lived alone in a bare room above a clinic and gave away most of his salary. He was equally openhanded with the Florentine treasury, which ultimately cost him the mayoralty job. Fanfani and his buxom, dimpled wife Biancarosa (White Rose) have not only been close friends to La Pira, but have also regarded him as their health and spiritual counselor. They even had one of the Saint’s old hats around to wave over the heads of their seven children as a “cure” for minor ailments.

When La Pira’s touch failed to exercise healing powers in Viet Nam, Fanfani gamely went ahead with his final duties at the U.N., gaveling the session to a close and returning home—just in time to find himself guffaw-deep in a whole new farce with La Pira. This time the unwitting agent of humiliation was his own Biancarosa. Aiming to rescue La Pira’s and her husband’s image, she had invited the chief editor of the rightist satirical weekly Il Borghese, one of La Pira’s harshest critics, to meet the old family friend—certain that his personal charm would carry the day. The editor came to the Fanfani apartment atop Rome’s Monte Mario hill, expecting the Saint to talk about “saints and santoni [sarcastically, big saints]. Instead, he started talking about politics.”

Faith in the Pope. Cavalier talk it was, too, for the parlor of an absent Foreign Minister. As Il Borghese played it, La Pira had gaily dismissed Communism as “a peril that no longer exists.” President Johnson, he told the editor with a mystic’s assurance, “will have to cede and make peace [in Viet Nam] because American financiers want it.” Dean Rusk? “He doesn’t know anything.” Italian Premier Aldo Moro? “There’s something about him I don’t like.” Pope Paul? “I have faith in him,” allowed the Saint, “even if he sometimes stops, seesaws and bogs down.” La Pira denied everything, insisted he had been merely joking and speaking in “paradox.”

All Italy got the joke, all right, but the returning Amintore was not amused. First he blew his 5-ft. 1-in. top at his wife, and when she tried to escape by closing a door in his face, Fanfani reportedly kicked it in. Only when things were settled at home did he manfully face up to the chortling outside world. “Unjust and unfounded considerations and judgments of a friend and the improvident initiative of a member of my family,” he wrote Premier Moro with as much dignity as he could muster, “rightfully or wrongfully have cast doubts on the conduct of the Foreign Minister.” With that he resigned.

To Fanfani’s agony, Moro spun out the farce yet another day, refusing to accept the resignation. But how much laughter must a politician suffer? A mortified Fanfani wrote again, and this time, realizing that enough was enough, Moro let him go.

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