Friday, November 7, 2008

Here we go. Italian Prime Minster's comments racist towards Obama?

By Nick Squires in Rome
Last Updated: 3:46PM GMT 07 Nov 2008

The Italian prime minister provoked outrage when he described US President-elect Barack Obama as "young, handsome and also tanned."

The media mogul, well known for his gaffes, sexist remarks and blunt language, was savaged by opposition politicians at home and criticised in American newspapers for the bizarre remark, made during a state visit to Russia.

The leader of the centre-left opposition, Walter Veltroni, said the comment "seriously damages the image and dignity of our country on the international scene."

Italy's only black MP, Jean-Leonard Touadi, said Mr Berlusconi had embarrassed his country.

"In the United States, a joke like that wouldn't just be politically incorrect, but a great offence to this amazing example of integration, which it seems the Italian premier should take as an example."

But as his opponents demanded an apology be issued, Mr Berlusconi, 72, said the remark was in fact "a great compliment".

He said his critics lacked a sense of humour, adding: "God save us from imbeciles. How can you take such a great compliment negatively?"

But opposition MP Massimo Donadi, of the Italy of Values party, said it was Mr Berlusconi who was guilty of imbecility.

He said: "To make a wisecrack on race at the moment in which America is freeing itself of the heavy burden of racism is the saddest and unhappiest thing that a head of government could do."

Mr Berlusconi made the suntan remark at a press conference in Moscow, when he said the relative youth of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, 43, and President-elect Obama, 47, should make it easier for Moscow and Washington to work together.

Smiling and speaking in Italian, he said through a translator: "I told the president that (Obama) has everything needed in order to reach deals with him – he's young, handsome and even tanned."

While there was no official comment from the Democratic Party, Mr Berlusconi's odd remark was condemned by ordinary Americans.

"What a muscle head," one New York Times reader wrote on the newspaper's website, while another advised the Italian prime minister to "mind his own business." Typical of the reaction of many who filled 48 pages of comment was the reader who wrote: "Apologise if you like, moron. You're irrelevant." Hundreds of Italians posted messages on US news websites, apologising for Mr Berlusconi's remark.

"I apologise to our American friends. Today I am ashamed to be Italian," wrote Marco from Milan.