Why an Italian lawmaker's phone call trumps Obama's speech

Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti's decision to take a call from an Italian lawmaker during President Barack Obama's speech highlights the tentativeness of his claim to authority.

Jason Lee/REUTERS
Italy's Prime Minister Mario Monti speaks during a news conference at the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul March 27.

When Barack Obama praised Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti's work fighting his country's debt crisis, Italy's leader wasn't there to listen. He was talking on his cell phone.

According to leaks from Mr. Monti's staff, he had to take an “urgent call” from Fabrizio Cicchitto, a senior lawmaker from former leader Silvio Berlusconi's Freedom Party, just as the United States president began his speech during yesterday's nuclear energy summit in Seoul. The prime minister's staff refused to disclose the topic of such an urgent conversation. 

While the world was well-acquainted with Mr. Berlusconi's gaffes (such has his description of Obama as a “young man with a nice tan”), the new prime minister's faux-pas was quite unexpected. Of the 52 world leaders at the summit, he was the only one who skipped Obama's speech. He was also the only leader openly mentioned in the same speech – a move widely interpreted as a demonstration of Mr. Obama's esteem.

Monti – a former university headmaster and European commissioner with an understated, professorial manner – seemed to fit in better than Berlusconi at international summits, making Monti well-suited to the task of restoring Italy's image abroad. It's one of the reasons Monti was chosen by the Italian Parliament to lead a transitional government when Berlusconi resigned last year. 

But while Monti has a better international reputation than his predecessor, at home he is much less respected.

As a crisis-time leader who was appointed, not elected, some view Monti as a lame duck hostage to a Parliament still controlled by Berlusconi's People of Freedom party, and to them the fact that he put a Freedom party lawmaker over Obama confirms this view.

The anecdote became a hit on the Italian blogosphere and reached Twitter's top trends, with many cracking jokes on the newly-acquired status of Mr. Cicchitto, a medium-profile politician.

Among the jokes: “Pope Benedict had to postpone his meeting with Fidel Castro. He had to take a call from Cicchitto.”

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