Rosalynn Carter, former US first lady and mental health activist, dies at 96

Former US first lady Rosalynn Carter, who President Jimmy Carter called “an extension of myself” owing to his wife’s prominent role in his administration even as she tirelessly promoted the cause of mental health, died on Sunday at age 96, the Carter Center said.

Rosalynn Carter, who in recent days had entered hospice care at home in Plains, Georgia, died with her family by her side, according to a statement released by the Carter Center, a nonprofit organization founded by the couple.

Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, served as president from 1977 to 1981. He and his wife were the longest-married US presidential couple, having wed in 1946 when he was 21 and she was 18.

After his single term as president ended, he also enjoyed more post-White House years than any president before him, and she played an instrumental role during those years, including as part of the Carter Center and the Habitat for Humanity charity.

Her family in May disclosed that she had dementia but was continuing to live at home. Jimmy Carter, 99, himself is in hospice care after deciding in February to decline additional medical intervention.

“Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished,” the former president said in the statement. “She gave me wise guidance and encouragement when I needed it. As long as Rosalynn was in the world, I always knew somebody loved and supported me.”

She was seen as unassuming and quiet before coming to Washington in 1977 but developed into an eloquent speaker, campaigner and activist. Her abiding passion, which carried far beyond her White House years, was for the mentally ill, not because of any personal connection but because of a strong feeling that advocacy was needed.

“The best thing I ever did was marry Rosalynn,” Carter told the C-SPAN cable TV channel in 2015. “That’s the pinnacle of my life.”

Before her husband was elected president in 1976, Rosalynn was largely unknown outside of Georgia, where he had been a peanut farmer-turned-governor. He lost his 1980 re-election bid to Ronald Reagan, a Republican former California governor and Hollywood actor.

In Washington, the Carters were a team, with the president calling her “an extension of myself” and “my closest adviser.” She was often invited to sit in as an observer at cabinet meetings and political strategy discussions. In a 1978 interview with magazine editors, Carter said he shared almost everything with his wife except top-secret material.

“I think she understands the consciousness of the American people and their attitudes perhaps better than do I,” he said.

She also was sent on important official missions to Latin America and was part of the unsuccessful campaign for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to ensure equal treatment of women under the law.

The Iranian hostage crisis – in which American diplomats and others were held captive in Tehran after the Islamic revolution – occurred when Carter was seeking re-election. The crisis contributed to the downfall of his presidency as he refrained from campaigning while trying to resolve the standoff.

During that time, Rosalynn Carter sought to support her husband by speaking in 112 cities in 34 states during a 44-day tour. Her speeches and forays into crowds were credited with helping Carter defeat Democratic challenger Ted Kennedy in the 1980 primaries, although he went on to lose overwhelmingly to Reagan.

First lady Jill Biden on Sunday paid tribute to Carter during an event in Virginia. Former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura Bush, in a statement called Carter “a woman of dignity and strength.” Former President Donald Trump in a social media post called her “a great humanitarian.”

Mental health interest

Eleanor Rosalynn Smith was born Aug. 18, 1927, in Plains to Edgar and Alice Smith, and married Carter on July 7, 1946. They went on to have four children.

Her interest in mental health issues stemmed from the early 1970s when she began to realize, while helping her husband campaign for governor, the depth of the problem in her home state of Georgia and the reluctance of people to talk about it.

As first lady of Georgia, she was a member of a governor’s commission to improve services for the mentally ill.

In the White House, she became honorary chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health, key to passage of a 1980 act that helped fund local mental health centers.

After leaving Washington she pursued her work through the Carter Center, which the Carters founded in Atlanta in 1982. She continued to advocate for mental health, early childhood immunization, human rights, conflict resolution and the empowerment of urban communities.

“I hope our legacy continues, more than just as first lady, because the Carter Center has been an integral part of our lives. And our motto is waging peace, fighting disease and building hope. And I hope that I have contributed something to mental health issues and help improve a little bit the lives of people living with mental illnesses,” she told C-SPAN in a 2013 interview.

Speaking about her 1998 book “Helping Someone With Mental Illness,” Carter said she longed for the day when the mentally ill would be free from discrimination.

In their post-Washington years the Carters were also key figures in the Habitat for Humanity charity, helping build homes for needy families. Their humanitarian efforts were crowned in 2002 when Jimmy Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

“I am especially grateful to Rosalynn, who has been a part of everything I’ve done,” a teary-eyed Jimmy Carter said in a speech in Plains after learning he had won the award.

Both Carters were active members of the Plains community, including at the Maranatha Baptist Church where Rosalynn served as a deacon and the former president as a deacon and long-time Sunday school teacher.

The Carter Center said she also is survived by her four children, 11 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.


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Bill Richardson, a former Democratic governor and UN ambassador, dies aged 75

Bill Richardson, a two-term Democratic governor of New Mexico and an American ambassador to the United Nations who also worked for years to secure the release of Americans detained by foreign adversaries, has died. He was 75.

The Richardson Center for Global Engagement, which he founded and led, said in a statement Saturday that he died in his sleep at his home in Chatham, Massachusetts.

“He lived his entire life in the service of others — including both his time in government and his subsequent career helping to free people held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad,” said Mickey Bergman, the center’s vice president. “There was no person that Gov. Richardson would not speak with if it held the promise of returning a person to freedom. The world has lost a champion for those held unjustly abroad and I have lost a mentor and a dear friend.”

Before his election in 2002 as governor, Richardson was the U.S. envoy to the United Nations and energy secretary under President Bill Clinton and served 14 years as a congressman representing northern New Mexico.

But he also forged an identity as an unofficial diplomatic troubleshooter. He traveled the globe negotiating the release of hostages and American servicemen from North Korea, Iraq, Cuba and Sudan and bargained with a who’s who of America’s adversaries, including Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. It was a role that Richardson relished, once describing himself as “the informal undersecretary for thugs.”

“I plead guilty to photo-ops and getting human beings rescued and improving the lives of human beings,” he once told reporters.

He helped secure the 2021 release of American journalist Danny Fenster from a Myanmar prison and this year negotiated the freedom of Taylor Dudley, who crossed the border from Poland into Russia. He flew to Moscow for a meeting with Russian government officials in the months before the release last year of Marine veteran Trevor Reed in a prisoner swap and also worked on the cases of Brittney Griner, the WNBA star freed by Moscow last year, and Michael White, a Navy veteran freed by Iran in 2020.

Armed with a golden resume and wealth of experience in foreign and domestic affairs, Richardson ran for the 2008 Democratic nomination for president in hopes of becoming the nation’s first Hispanic president. He dropped out of the race after fourth place finishes in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.

Richardson was the nation’s only Hispanic governor during his two terms. He described being governor as “the best job I ever had.”

“It’s the most fun. You can get the most done. You set the agenda,” Richardson said.

As governor, Richardson signed legislation in 2009 that repealed the death penalty. He called it the “most difficult decision in my political life” because he previously had supported capital punishment.

Other accomplishments as governor included $50,000-a-year minimum salaries for the most qualified teachers in New Mexico, an increase in the state minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.50 an hour, pre-kindergarten programs for 4-year-olds, renewable energy requirements for utilities and financing for large infrastructure projects, including a commercial spaceport in southern New Mexico and a $400 million commuter rail system.

U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., called Richardson a “giant in public service and government.”

“In his post-government career, he was trusted to handle some of the most sensitive diplomatic crises, and he did so with great success. Here in New Mexico, we will always remember him as our governor. He never stopped fighting for the state he called home,” Lujan said in a statement.

Some of his most prominent global work began in December 1994, when he was visiting North Korean nuclear sites and word came that an American helicopter pilot had been downed and his co-pilot killed.

The Clinton White House enlisted Richardson’s help and, after days of tough negotiations, the then-congressman accompanied the remains of Chief Warrant Officer David Hilemon while paving the way for Chief Warrant Officer Bobby Hall to return home.

The following year, and after a personal appeal from Richardson, Saddam Hussein freed two Americans who had been imprisoned for four months, charged with illegally crossing into Iraq from Kuwait.

Richardson continued his freelance diplomacy even while serving as governor. He had barely started his first term as governor when he met with two North Korean envoys in Santa Fe. He traveled to North Korea in 2007 to recover remains of American servicemen killed in the Korean War.

In 2006, he persuaded Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to free Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist Paul Salopek.

Richardson transformed the political landscape in New Mexico. He raised and spent record amounts on his campaigns. He brought Washington-style politics to an easygoing western state with a part-time Legislature.

Lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, complained that Richardson threatened retribution against those who opposed him. Former Democratic state Sen. Tim Jennings of Roswell once said Richardson was “beating people over the head” in his dealings with lobbyists on a health care issue. Richardson dismissed criticisms of his administrative style.

“Admittedly, I am aggressive. I use the bully pulpit of the governorship,” Richardson said. “But I don’t threaten retribution. They say I am a vindictive person. I just don’t believe that.”

Longtime friends and supporters attributed Richardson’s success partly to his relentlessness. Bob Gallagher, who headed the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said if Richardson wanted something done then “expect him to have a shotgun at the end of the hallway. Or a ramrod.”

After dropping out of the 2008 presidential race, Richardson endorsed Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton. That happened despite a long-standing friendship with the Clintons.

Obama later nominated Richardson as secretary of commerce, but Richardson withdrew in early 2009 because of a federal investigation into an alleged pay-to-play scheme involving his administration in New Mexico.

Months later, the federal investigation ended with no charges against Richardson and his former top aides. Richardson had a troubled tenure as energy secretary because of a scandal over missing computer equipment with nuclear weapons secrets at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the government’s investigation and prosecution of former nuclear weapons scientist Wen Ho Lee.

Richardson approved Lee’s firing at Los Alamos in 1999. Lee spent nine months in solitary confinement, charged with 59 counts of mishandling sensitive information. Lee later pleaded guilty to one count of mishandling computer files and was released with the apology of a federal judge.

William Blaine Richardson was born in Pasadena, California, but grew up in Mexico City with a Mexican mother and an American father who was a U.S. bank executive.

He attended prep school in Massachusetts and was a star baseball player. He later went to Tufts University and its graduate school in international relations, earning a master’s degree in international affairs.

Richardson moved to New Mexico in 1978 after working as a Capitol Hill staffer. He wanted to run for political office and said New Mexico, with its Hispanic roots, seemed like a good place. He campaigned for Congress just two years later — his only losing race.

In 1982, he won a new congressional seat from northern New Mexico that the state picked up in reapportionment. He resigned from Congress in 1997 to join the Clinton administration as U.N. ambassador and became secretary of energy in 1998, holding the post until the end of the Clinton presidency.


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Tycoon Mohamed Al Fayed, whose son was killed in crash with Princess Diana, dies at 94

Few things were beyond the reach of billionaire Egyptian tycoon Mohamed Al Fayed who has died at the age of 94.

Hotels, yachts and a football club were bought with ease but he never acquired the recognition he craved.

His son Dodi’s fateful relationship with princess Diana might have been the moment Fayed finally gained acceptance by the British “Establishment” elite.

Instead it marked his permanent estrangement after he insisted – without evidence – that Queen Elizabeth II‘s husband Prince Philip had ordered the Paris car crash in which Diana and Dodi were killed to prevent her marrying a Muslim.

Fayed lived most of his life in Britain, where for decades he was never far from the headlines.

But to his frustration he was never granted UK citizenship nor admitted into the upper echelons of British society.

Fayed will be remembered most for his outspoken and often foul-mouthed manner, his revenge on the Conservative party, his controversial purchase of the Harrods department store, and his ownership of Fulham football club and the Ritz hotel in Paris.

Al Fayed owned the Harrods department store in west London. © Carl De Souza, AFP

With a business empire encompassing shipping, property, banking, oil, retail and construction, Fayed was also a philanthropist, whose foundation helped children in the UK, Thailand and Mongolia.

His gift for self-invention – he added the “Al-” prefix to his surname and a 1988 UK government report described his claims of wealthy ancestry as “completely bogus” – led segments of the British press to dub him the “Phoney Pharoah.”

Humble origins

Far from being the scion of a dynasty of cotton and shipping barons he made himself out to be, Fayed was the son of a poor Alexandrian school-teacher who, after an early venture flogging lemonade, set out in business selling sewing machines.

He later had the good luck to start working for the arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, who recognised his business abilities and employed him in his furniture export business in Saudi Arabia.

He also owned the Ritz hotel in Paris, from where Diana and Dodi made their fateful final journey.
He also owned the Ritz hotel in Paris, from where Diana and Dodi made their fateful final journey. © Jacques Demarthon, AFP

He became an advisor to the Sultan of Brunei in the mid-1960s and moved to Britain in the 1970s.

Fayed bought the Ritz in 1979 with his brother and the pair snapped up Harrods six years later after a long and bitter takeover battle with British businessman Roland “Tiny” Rowland.

A subsequent government investigation into the takeover, officially published in 1990, found that Fayed and his brother had been dishonest about their wealth and origins to secure the takeover.

They called the claims unfair. Five years later, his first application for British citizenship was rejected.

Revenge followed swiftly. Soon after, Fayed told the press that he had paid Conservative MPs to ask questions in parliament on his behalf.

This brought down two prominent politicians, while Fayed also exposed Cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken’s involvement in a Saudi arms deal.

Aitken was later jailed for perjury and perverting the course of justice.

Paris tragedy

The defining tragedy of Fayed’s life came in August 1997: Dodi and Princess Diana died when a car driven by one of Fayed’s employees, chauffeur Henri Paul, crashed in a Paris road tunnel.

For years afterwards, Fayed refused to accept the deaths were the result of speeding and intoxication by Paul, who also died.

Dodi's death in the tragedy was largely eclipsed by Diana's.
Dodi’s death in the tragedy was largely eclipsed by Diana’s. © Mohammed Al-Sehiti, AFP

The distraught Fayed accused the royal family of being behind the deaths and commissioned two memorials to the couple at Harrods.

One, unveiled in 1998, was a kitsch pyramid-shaped display with photos of Diana and Dodi, a wine glass purported to be from their final dinner and a ring that he claimed his son bought for the princess.

The other, a copper statue of the couple releasing an albatross, was entitled “Innocent Victims” – a reflection of his view that Dodi and Diana “were murdered”.

Fayed’s claims against the royal family came at a price.

Harrods lost a royal warrant bestowed by Prince Philip in 2000 after what Buckingham Palace called “a significant decline in the trading relationship” between the prince and the store.

Al-Fayed commissioned two memorials to the couple, insisting they were going to be married
Al-Fayed commissioned two memorials to the couple, insisting they were going to be married © John D. McHugh, AFP

Later that year, Fayed ordered the removal of all remaining royal warrants – effectively a regal seal of approval – for supplying the queen, queen mother and Prince Charles, the now King Charles III.

The Establishment “dislike my outspokenness and determination to get the truth”, he said, as he announced his exile to Switzerland in 2003 because of his claims and what he said was the “unfair” treatment at the hands of the tax authorities.

Sporting success

Fayed sold Harrods in 2010 to the investment arm of Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund for a reported £1.5 billion ($2.2 billion), although it was once reported he wanted to remain there even in death.

He told the Financial Times in 2002 that he wanted his body to be put on display in a glass mausoleum on Harrods roof “so people can come and visit me”.

Despite his paranoia, secrecy and eccentricities, Fayed’s success with the prestige department store was undeniable.

Al Fayed bought Fulham Football Club and commissioned a statue of pop star Michael Jackson for outside its ground.
Al Fayed bought Fulham Football Club and commissioned a statue of pop star Michael Jackson for outside its ground. © Glyn Kirk, AFP

Within a decade of his taking over, sales increased by 50 percent and profits rose from £16 million to £62 million.

Other successes included at Fulham, which he transformed from a struggling outfit into an top-flight side. But even here he was ridiculed and he eventually sold up.

He claimed in 2014 they were relegated because a giant statue he had commissioned of Michael Jackson outside the ground was removed.

Critics, he said characteristically, “can go to hell”.

According to Forbes list of the world’s billionaires, Fayed was worth $1.9 billion in November 2022.


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Daniel Ellsberg, Pentagon Papers whistleblower who exposed Vietnam War secrets, dies at 92

Daniel Ellsberg, the U.S. military analyst whose change of heart on the Vietnam War led him to leak the classified “Pentagon Papers,” revealing U.S. government deception about the war and setting off a major freedom-of-the-press battle, died on Friday at the age of 92, his family said in a statement.

Issued on: Modified:

Ellsberg, who had been diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer in February, died at his home in Kensington, California, the family said.

Long before Edward Snowden and Wikileaks were revealing government secrets in the name of transparency, Ellsberg let Americans know that their government was capable of misleading and even lying to them. In his later years Ellsberg would become an advocate for whistleblowers and leakers and his “Pentagon Papers” leak was portrayed in the 2017 movie “The Post.”

Ellsberg secretly went to the media in 1971 in hopes of expediting the end of the Vietnam War. It made him the target of a smear campaign by the Nixon White House. Henry Kissinger, who was then the president’s national security adviser, referred to him as “the most dangerous man in America who must be stopped at all costs.”

When he went to Saigon for the State Department in the mid-1960s, Ellsberg had an impressive resume. He had earned three degrees from Harvard, served in the Marine Corps and worked at the Pentagon and the RAND Corporation, the influential policy research think tank.

He was a dedicated Cold War warrior and hawk on Vietnam at the time. But Ellsberg, in his 2003 book, “Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers,” said he was only one week into a two-year tour of duty in Saigon when he realized the United States was in a war it would not win.

Meanwhile at the behest of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Pentagon officials had secretly been putting together a 7,000-page report covering U.S. involvement in Vietnam from 1945 through 1967. When it was finished in 1969, two of the 15 published copies went to the RAND Corporation, where Ellsberg was once again working.

Anti-war rallies

With his new perspective on the war, Ellsberg started attending peace rallies. He said he was inspired to copy the “Pentagon Papers” after hearing an anti-war protester say he was looking forward to going to prison for resisting the draft.

Ellsberg began sneaking the top-secret study out of the RAND office and copying it at night on a rented Xerox machine – using his 13-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter as helpers. He took the documents with him when he moved to Boston for a job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and ended up sitting on them for a year and a half before passing pages to the New York Times.

The Times ran its first installment of the “Pentagon Papers” on June 13, 1971, and the administration of President Richard Nixon moved quickly to get a judge to stop further publication.

Nixon’s claim of executive authority and invocation of the Espionage Act set off a freedom-of-the-press fight over the extreme censorship of prior restraint.

Ellsberg’s next move was to give the “Pentagon Papers” to the Washington Post and more than a dozen other newspapers. In New York Times v. U.S., the Supreme Court ruled less than three weeks after first publication that the press had the right to publish the papers, and the Times resumed doing so.

The study said the U.S. officials had concluded that the war probably could not be won and that President John F. Kennedy approved of plans for a coup to overthrow the South Vietnamese leader. It also said Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, had plans to expand the war, including bombing in North Vietnam, despite saying during the 1964 campaign that he would not. The papers also revealed the secret U.S. bombing in Cambodia and Laos and that casualty figures were higher than reported.

On the run

The Times never said who leaked the papers but the FBI quickly figured it out. Ellsberg remained underground for about two weeks before surrendering in Boston.

“I felt that as an American citizen, as a responsible citizen, I could no longer cooperate in concealing this information from the American public,” Ellsberg said at the time. “I did this clearly at my own jeopardy and I am prepared to answer to all the consequences of this decision.”

He would say that he regretted not leaking the papers sooner.

Even though the “Pentagon Papers” did not cover Nixon’s handling of Vietnam, the White House’s “plumbers” unit, which would later pull off the Watergate break-in that led to Nixon’s downfall, was ordered to stop further leaks and discredit Ellsberg.

Two and a half months after first publication, two men who later figured prominently in Watergate – G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt – broke into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist to search for incriminating evidence.

Ellsberg and a RAND colleague were eventually charged with espionage, theft and conspiracy. But at their 1973 trial, the case was dismissed on the grounds of government misconduct when the break-in was revealed.

In his later years, Ellsberg, who was born April 7, 1931 in Chicago, Illinois, became a writer and lecturer in the campaign for government transparency and against the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

He said Snowden, a contractor for the National Security Agency who gave journalists thousands of classified documents on government information-gathering before fleeing the country, had done nothing wrong. He also said he considered Army Private Chelsea Manning a hero for turning over a trove of government files to WikiLeaks.

His books include “The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner” in 2017 and “Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers” in 2002.

The once-top-secret papers that Ellsberg shepherded into the mainstream can be read online at

Ellsberg had been married twice, first to Carol Cummings, with whom he had two children. That marriage ended in divorce.

His second marriage was to Patricia Marx, with whom he a son.


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Silvio Berlusconi, master populist who dominated Italian politics, dies at 86

Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire media tycoon and four-time prime minister who brushed off a litany of legal battles and sex scandals to dominate Italian public life for more than two decades, has died in Milan aged 86.

Italy’s longest-serving prime minister since World War II, Berlusconi had been admitted to Milan’s San Raffaele hospital on Friday for what aides said were pre-planned tests related to leukemia. His admission came just three weeks after he was discharged following a six-week stay at San Raffaele hospital, during which time doctors revealed he had a rare type of blood cancer.

His death was announced on June 12 by Italian media.

Long the country’s richest man, Berlusconi made his fortune in real estate before going on to build Italy’s biggest media empire, Mediaset, which he later enlisted to facilitate his swashbuckling entry into politics.

The scandal-plagued tycoon infamous for the debauchery of his “bunga bunga” parties transformed and monopolised Italian politics at the turn of the century, introducing a skewed left-right divide that pitted his conservative camp against the centre-left anti-Berlusconi front.

Known as “Il Cavaliere” (The Knight), among many other nicknames, he was admired and reviled in equal measure at home – but was mostly derided abroad. After a decade in power, The Economist magazine famously ran a cover story on his record in office with the headline, “The man who screwed an entire country”.

Despite the mockery, his unbounded bravado, unique brand of politics and tumultuous career became a playbook for ambitious politicians around the world, making him a precursor to contemporary populism.

Long before the likes of Donald Trump played the “anti-system” card, Berlusconi had successfully cast himself as the bête noire of a declining and discredited political class. Accused of being as narcissistic, sexist and self-serving as the billionaire former US president, Berlusconi also played an equally piteous victim, railing against the judiciary and once claiming he was “the most persecuted person in the history of the world and the history of man”.

He also played a more inveterate jester than Britain’s Boris Johnson, entertaining Italy as much as he ran it; a more polished macho than his friend Vladimir Putin, adding an affable, cultured touch to his personality cult; and a subtler strategist than Matteo Salvini, the loudmouthed nationalist who briefly supplanted him as leader of the country’s right-wing camp – only to be overtaken in turn by the far right’s Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s current prime minister and once a junior minister under Berlusconi.

The most talked-about Italian politician since Benito Mussolini, Berlusconi was once described as a “disease that can only be cured through vaccination” by the country’s most respected postwar journalist, the late Indro Montanelli. The vaccine, Montanelli argued on the eve of the 2001 general election, involved “a healthy injection of Berlusconi in the prime minister’s seat, Berlusconi in the president’s seat, Berlusconi in the pope’s seat or wherever else he may want. Only after that will we be immune.”

Montanelli was wrong about immunity, and so were the many other pundits who wrote off the Cavaliere, time and time again, even as his political career – and popularity – powered on.

The dream of America

Berlusconi was born on September 29, 1936, the first of three children raised in a middle-class family in Milan, Italy’s financial capital. Like many of his generation, he was evacuated during World War II and lived with his mother in a village some distance from the city.

The handsome and genial youth made his first money selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door, and occasionally singing in nightclubs and cruise ships with his friend Fedele Confalonieri, who would remain his loyal business partner to the very end.

After graduating in law in 1961, Berlusconi began a career in construction, establishing himself as a residential housing developer in the Milan area. He got his big break at the start of the 1970s with the construction of Milano 2, a self-contained town his Edilnord company built in the suburbs, soon to be followed by its twin, Milano 3.

With their artificial lakes, sports facilities, churches and shopping malls, Berlusconi’s model towns were designed as the Italian version of American suburbia – functional environments dedicated to work, leisure and watching television.

“I’m in favour of all things American before even knowing what they are,” Berlusconi once told Britain’s Times newspaper. His next challenge was to ensure his fellow Italians felt likewise, embracing American popular culture through soap operas, commercials and chat shows.

Milano 2 is where the Cavaliere built his media empire, Mediaset, launching Italy’s first private channels with the help of his politician friends, chief of whom was the powerful Socialist leader Bettino Craxi, a former prime minister whose name would later become synonymous with corruption.

The leafy suburb is also where Berlusconi’s own four-decade-long battle with the judiciary began in the late 1970s, with the first investigations into Edilnord’s shady funding. The cases were soon shelved, though it later emerged that the investigators had been given senior positions in Berlusconi’s Fininvest holding.

In the following years, several former mafia bosses were quoted as saying that Edilnord had received generous funding from criminal organisations based in Sicily, via Berlusconi’s close friend Marcello Dell’Utri, who was later convicted of collusion with the mafia in a separate case.

Berlusconi himself began feeling the heat in the early ’90s when a sweeping corruption investigation destroyed Italy’s Christian Democracy party, which had ruled the country since the war, along with his friend and protector Craxi. But instead of hiding in the shadows, the Cavaliere sensed an opportunity.

In 1992, at the height of the “Clean Hands” corruption inquiries, the media tycoon was asked whether he would consider running for mayor in his hometown of Milan, where a Berlusconi-owned football club won its 12th league title that year. His answer was an accurate forecast of the years to come.

“Do you know that every day I receive 400 letters from housewives thanking me for freeing them from their daily boredom with my television programmes?” Berlusconi replied. “If I entered politics with this electoral base, I wouldn’t go for mayor. I’d build a party like Reagan’s, win the elections and become prime minister.”

Go, Italy!

Two decades before France’s Emmanuel Macron seemingly pulled a political party out of his hat and conjured an Élysée Palace victory, Berlusconi, a media mogul with no political credentials, pulled the same trick in Italy – and in half the time. Staffed with marketing strategists in business suits, Forza Italia (Go, Italy) was just five months old when its founder swept to power in the spring of 1994 on promises of lower taxes, less encroachment from the state and restored pride in the Italian nation.

Hailed by his followers as “the Lord’s anointed”, the media mogul said he felt compelled to enter politics in order to bar the post-Communist left from power. Critics, however, claimed Berlusconi was primarily motivated by his desire to protect his own businesses – a critique borne out by the many bespoke laws his successive governments would force through parliament over the years.

While his first, grossly inexperienced government soon collapsed, the tycoon politician would go on to dominate Italian politics for the next two decades, bouncing back with further electoral triumphs in 2001 and 2008. Despite leading an unwieldy coalition with southern-based post-fascists and far-right Northern League separatists, he became the only prime minister to serve through a full five-year legislature, between 2001 and 2006 – no small achievement in a country that has known 67 different governments since 1945.

It would take a combination of the eurozone’s debt crisis, the loss of his parliamentary majority following a party split, and lurid accounts of “bunga bunga” orgies featuring showgirls and prostitutes at his private residence to finally push Berlusconi out of office – for the third and last time – in 2011, amid the jeers of protesters gathered in central Rome to celebrate his departure.

Earlier that year, Berlusconi suffered a major blow when Italy’s Constitutional Court struck down part of a law granting him temporary immunity. After years of being cleared of multiple charges – often because the statute of limitations had expired or because his government had changed the law, for instance decriminalising the practise of false accounting – his run of luck came to an end in 2012 when he was sentenced to four years in prison for tax fraud and barred from public office.

But because Berlusconi was over 75 at the time, he was instead handed community service, working four hours a week with elderly dementia patients at a Catholic care home near Milan.

The next year, he was also found guilty of paying for sex with underage prostitute Karima “Ruby” El Mahroug, 17, a guest at his “bunga bunga” parties, and then abusing his power to have her released from jail. The conviction was later overturned, though Berlusconi faced further charges for allegedly bribing a witness in the trial.

In the meantime, his second wife Veronica Lario, with whom he had three of his five children, decided to divorce him after he was photographed at the 18th birthday party of an aspiring model who referred to him as “Papi”.

Berlusconi’s enduring support

Despite his rapidly declining fortunes, Berlusconi made another comeback ahead of the 2013 general election, overturning a 15-point gap in the polls to come within a whisker of a stunning election win. Though he was barred from office, the result cemented his role as the central powerbroker in Italian

Reflecting on the tycoon’s enduring support, Maurizio Cotta, a professor of politics at the University of Siena, said Berlusconi understood certain aspects of the Italian psyche better than anyone else. Berlusconi spoke “alla pancia” (to the stomach) of Italians, Cotta said. “He knew their weak spots – their fear of discipline, of the state, of losing their homes, of being caught with their hands in the till.”

When the head of aerospace giant Finmeccanica was arrested ahead of the 2013 election for bribing Indian officials to secure a huge helicopter contract, Berlusconi alone of all politicians blamed the magistrates for hurting Italian jobs. “Sometimes you simply cannot sell anything without a bribe,” he remarked.

Never mind the repeated trials, the laws passed to protect himself and his businesses, the lurid campaign jokes about how often a girl would “come” or the fact that he personally intervened to have Mahroug released from custody – claiming he thought she was the niece of Egypt’s then-president Hosni Mubarak – almost a quarter of Italian voters still chose his party, and nearly a third backed his coalition.

“Berlusconi might cause every possible disaster, but he speaks the language and knows the interests of his ‘social bloc’,” wrote Perangelo Battista in the Corriere della Sera, Italy’s best-known daily, referring to the tax-averse small and medium-sized businesses that formed the backbone of his support.

At 81 and just 18 months after undergoing open-heart surgery, the Cavaliere was somehow back on his horse for the 2018 general election, still cobbling together unlikely coalitions and promising Italians a rosy future with unshakeable optimism. His party did reasonably well, though it was overtaken on the right by Salvini’s eurosceptic and anti-immigrant Lega party.

The next year, with his ban on public office lifted, Berlusconi won himself a seat in the European Parliament – 18 years after he delivered one of his most infamous lines there in a slur aimed at German MEP Martin Schulz.

“I know that in Italy there is a man producing a film on Nazi concentration camps,” Berlusconi said as he took over the EU’s rotating presidency in June 2003. “I shall put you forward for the role of a kapo (prison guard) – you would be perfect.”

Berlusconi went on to win yet another general election in September 2022 – this time as an unlikely junior partner in Italy’s most right-wing ruling coalition since Mussolini. From the get-go, he proved to be a troublesome ally for the far right’s Meloni, bragging about vodka gifts from Putin and blaming Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky for Russia’s unprovoked invasion of his country.

The man who claimed credit for “ending the Cold War” was in and out of hospital in his twilight years, battling a string of illnesses. His tenacity earned him another nickname – “the Immortal” – as well as the bipartisan respect that had eluded him throughout his career.

Three years before his final stay at Milan’s San Rafaele clinic, Berlusconi overcame a severe case of Covid-19 at the height of the pandemic. After testing positive for the deadly respiratory disease along with dozens of Sardinia jet-setters in August 2020, he responded with characteristic braggadocio.

“I’ve been diagnosed with one of the strongest viral loads in all of Italy,” he said in a phone call with supporters from his hospital bed in Milan. “It just goes to show I’m still the number one.”

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Reagan Interior Secretary James Watt Dies, Pallbearers To Be A Black, A Woman, Two Jews And A Cripple

James Watt, the former secretary of the Interior under Ronald Reagan who no doubt resented coming up second on Google to the inventor of the steam engine, died yesterday in Arizona at the age of 85. Watt was notorious for his devotion to the principle that the best way to protect the natural environment was to make use of it so it wouldn’t be wasted on owls and caribou and other shiftless creatures that didn’t do a damn thing for the economy.

Watt was a rightwing fundamentalist who got his start in the environmental destruction game, as Wonkette’s own labor historian Erik Loomis reminds us, as “head of the loathsome Mountain States Legal Foundation,” the lobbying outfit funded by “fascist and beer capitalist” Joe Coors, who hated Big Government Overreach especially if it kept him and other Western rich guys from exploiting resources on federal land. There, Watt helped promote

the most astroturf movement of all time—the Sagebrush Rebellion, in which rich landowners and their employees started raising havoc in the West over government control of resources, which they were always fine with so long as the government served their interests. But with environmentalism a thing now, they had no use for competing interests and demanded the return of these lands to the states. In other words, Cliven Bundy and his followers are followers of James Watt. This is the kind of person Watt empowered.

Forget the great big New York Times obit of Watt, or at least supplement it with Loomis’s excellent, scathing obituary at Lawyers, Guns & Money, where you get a fuller sense of how Watt became the spiritual forbear of the “drill baby drill” crowd a couple decades later.

To be sure, the Times obit is hardly a love song, either, going straight to this story in the third and fourth paragraphs:

After taking office in 1981, Mr. Watt was asked at a hearing of the House Interior Committee if he favored preserving wilderness areas for future generations. […]

Mr. Watt’s response startled some committee members, but seemed to explain his intention to ease restrictions on the use of millions of acres of public lands. “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns,” he said.

Watt later explained that he’d only been joking, in the way that Republicans like to “joke” about using Second Amendment solutions, with votes and all that.

He believed the Interior Department had gone too far in indulging “environmental extremists,” and griped that environmental regulation “is centralized planning and control of society” like in communist Roosha. Watt considered it his mission to reorient the agency to its true purpose, helping extractive businesses get at all the neat stuff that God put in the Earth so humans could burn it and make stuff out of it. This old Newsweek cover sums it up nicely:

Way better illustration than some damn AI art program, that’s for sure.

Watt was an ideological precursor to Donald Trump’s first Interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, albeit minus the open corruption, the 24/7 security detail, or the personal Secure Phone Booth in his office.

Unfortunately, Watt’s 33-month tenure at Interior was also a hell of a lot like what we see in politics now: His anti-environmental policies were full on garbage, and he should have been shitcanned for them, but instead his departure came after a series of idiotic things that had little to do with the substance of his maladministration. For instance there was his silly refusal in 1983 to let the Beach Boys (and the Grass Roots — “la la la la la let’s live for today“) perform for the Fourth of July on the National Mall. The bands had done the concerts without incident from 1980 through 1982, but Watt fretted that Rock and/or Roll would attract the “wrong element” and lead to crime. So instead, he booked Wayne Newton, who at the time was unironically kitschy, not nostalgically cool-kitschy like he is today. (Danke schoen,Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. [Hat tip to alert Wonkette operative Granny Sprinkle])

Watt insulted Native Americans, too, saying in an interview, “If you want an example of the failure of socialism, don’t go to Russia, come to America and go to the Indian reservations.” Not a great look for a guy whose agency oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but Watt wanted to eliminate that, too, and make Native Americans get off the government gravy train for their own good.

Ultimately Watt was pressured to leave office not primarily because he sought to pave paradise, but for a stupid “look at me mock diversity” joke where he said, of an Interior Department panel on coal leasing, “We have every mixture you can have. I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple. And we have talent.” Three weeks later, he was out, not because anyone in the Reagan White House was really bothered, but because Watt had become too embarrassing to keep around. And with the loud embarrassing guy gone, Reagan’s administration went right on weakening environmental protections, but with less public attention.

Finally, we’ll close with this wonderful ephemera Dr. Loomis found in the papers of the Hoedad Reforestation Cooperative, archived at the University of Oregon. He’s been saving it for this very occasion. (The Hoedads were a bunch of hippie environmentalist tree-planters, Crom bless them, and far more worthy of everyone’s time than James goddamn Watt.) Says Loomis, “They did not like James Watt.” Guess not!

Crude cartoon drawing of James Watt fellating a dead bear, with the title 'Watt Blows Dead Bears' and a fake news story saying Watt had been photographed in the act of blowing the bear in Yellowstone National Park

And now Watt is no doubt sharing stories with Pat Robertson in Hell about how mean the liberals are. Haha, we joke, there is no afterlife. But we would suggest that Interior Secretary Deb Haaland recognize Watt by naming a parking lot in his memory. Or possibly a tree museum, where they charge the people a dollar and a half just to see ’em.

Speaking of matters environmental, don’t forget to join us this afternoon tomorrow — Saturday, June 10 — for the fourth meeting of our Wonkette Book Club! We’re reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2020 climate novel The Ministry for the Future. More on the book club and this week’s reading (Chapters 51 through 69, nice) here! As ever, please drop by even if you haven’t finished (or even started) the reading, because we’re all living in the world James Watt and Ronald Reagan and their cronies built, and we’ve been having some excellent discussions of the book and the climate crisis.

Update: Because of IndictmentPalooza, we’re rescheduling the Book Club for Saturday, so hooray, more time to read, unless there’s a nuclear war and your glasses break. That would not be fair!

[AP / Lawyers, Guns, Money / University of Oregon / NYT]

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