Doesn't it seem as if Europe is going down the slippery slope of Berlusconi-style politics as entertainment — "politainment", perhaps? Not only in Italy but in France, Germany and Britain too, leaders no longer attend only summits and state banquets. They frequently appear at the right kind of parties, with their glamorous wives in tow: women with jobs that make them a regular feature of glossy magazines, from Samantha Cameron to Carla Bruni. Instead of the statesman we have the showman, who cares as much about his (and his wife's) appearance as his political agenda.
Not that there's anything wrong with a good show. It's just the sleaze that's worrying: how do we sense the tipping point, when an inappropriate wink or a pair of sunglasses just that little bit too flashy become dangerous — the point where personal vanity turns into political hubris?
Enter a man who doesn't ooze the ster-eotypical Gallic charm or Italian sprezzatura, but hails from Germany, a country not exactly known for its panache. In Berlin, even the spiciest political scandal seems like a bleak post-modernist version of a Wagnerian tetralogy. Until a month or two ago, Defence Minister Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg had been hailed as a likely successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel. A scion of the Bavarian nobility, with independent wealth, impeccable manners, artistic father, smart and pretty wife (one of the Bismarck clan), he seemed the picture-perfect politician for the next generation. The charismatic young conservative was happy to chat to interviewers about heavy metal and still sound convincing when discussing heavy artillery. He was good at explaining his policies and getting people interested in politics. In short, he was the most suave and cosmopolitan politician you could imagine — at least by German standards, where most are irredeemably provincial and few versed in the art of rhetoric (no Oxbridge debating societies here, nor parliamentary battles of wits). Guttenberg was the hero of his party and the darling of the media. Even his opponents admitted he was an unusually dashing figure.