Obituary: Giulio Andreotti / Complex seven-time prime minister of Italy

Jan. 14, 1919 - May 6, 2013

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Giulio Andreotti, a seven-time prime minister of Italy with a resume of signal accomplishments and checkered failings that reads like a history of the republic, died Monday. He was 94 and lived in Rome.

His death was announced by President Giorgio Napolitano.

Mr. Andreotti had been at the center of Italy's postwar political order until its collapse in 1992, emerging at the close of World War II as a close aide to Alcide De Gasperi, a founding father of the Italian republic who had practically reinvented the Christian Democratic Party after it had been wiped out by Fascism.

The party became Italy's dominant one, furnishing all but three postwar prime ministers and governing -- though at times barely so -- through unruly coalitions or with the acquiescence of other parties.

Mr. Andreotti's long career epitomized many of the country's contradictions. He held one important position or another as Italy overcame wartime destruction and the threat of Stalinist totalitarianism, coped with staggering social problems and labor discontent, faced down terrorists, and struggled against organized crime.

But to secure power for the Christian Democrats, Mr. Andreotti helped build a system of cronyism that led to vast corruption, government investigations and the end of both the Christian Democratic Party, in 1994, and his career.

A friend of popes and a daily attendant at Mass, Mr. Andreotti was complex and enigmatic. He helped shape the policies that placed Italy among the world's richest democracies, the Group of 7. But his ultimate inability to rein in the government profligacy that had helped anchor his party's popularity caused Italy's indebtedness to balloon.

He was known for a sardonic, sometimes caustic wit. "Power," he liked to say, "wears out only those who don't have it."

On another occasion, he said, "Apart from the Punic Wars, for which I was too young, I have been blamed for everything."

Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain was wary of him. In her memoirs, she wrote of him as a man possessing a "positive aversion to principle, even a conviction that a man of principle was doomed to be a figure of fun."

Others believed his character and deeds reflected his Catholicism. Gerardo Bianco, a longtime political associate, was quoted as saying, "Andreotti belongs to a certain Jesuitical, clerical tradition in which you accept that in a fallen world, you have to work with the material at hand."

Probably his most traumatic episode as prime minister unfolded in March 1978, when the Red Brigades, a radical Marxist-Leninist paramilitary group, kidnapped the former Prime Minister Aldo Moro in a street ambush and killed his five bodyguards. They demanded the release of their leaders, who were then on trial in Turin.

Moro was one of Mr. Andreotti's oldest friends and associates, but a sometime rival as well. In desperate letters to Mr. Andreotti and others, he pleaded with them to rescue him through a prisoner exchange. Mr. Andreotti, though clearly anguished, refused, having resolved not to negotiate with terrorists.

Weeks later, Moro's body was found in Rome in a battered old car, two blocks from the headquarters of both the Christian Democrats and the Communists.

Mr. Andreotti's critics contended that his refusal to help Moro was politically motivated, an accusation he denied.

Mr. Andreotti's detractors in Parliament had him investigated more than 20 times, whenever some scandal or malfeasance was rumored. As early as 1984, and perhaps even earlier, American diplomats in Sicily had reported to Washington that Mr. Andreotti's Sicilian party faction was reputed to be closely tied to the Mafia. In Italy, he won full vindication each time.

Mr. Andreotti's reputation was sullied again in his later years, when he was put on trial twice. Informers said he had colluded with the Mafia in exchange for electoral support, and implicated him in the killing of a muckraking Italian journalist. He was acquitted in both trials.

Mr. Andreotti maintained strong ties with the Vatican, having had a hand in rewriting its 1929 agreement with Mussolini. In 1976, as prime minister, Mr. Andreotti presented to Parliament an updated version of the accord, bringing it into line with the secular lives led by most Italians: It abolished Roman Catholicism as the state religion, made religious instruction in public schools optional and removed the Church's ban of Italy's 6-year-old divorce law.

The accord was finally ratified in 1984 under Bettino Craxi, Italy's first Socialist prime minister, whom Mr. Andreotti was serving as foreign minister.

Mr. Andreotti was also prime minister when Parliament, after years of arguments and compromises, passed a liberal abortion law in 1978 despite Vatican opposition and only lax support from his Christian Democrats. Three years later, the electorate voted by better than 2-to-1 to uphold the law.

Giulio Andreotti was born on Jan. 14, 1919, to a teacher who died when he was a year old. After growing up in Rome in modest circumstances, he worked his way through the University of Rome and earned a law degree. From 1942 to 1945, he presided over the Italian Catholic University Federation, a student organization, and edited its weekly.

While doing research at the Vatican in 1942, he met De Gasperi, an anti-Fascist who had found refuge there as a librarian and hoped to resuscitate the Christian Democratic Party when Mussolini had passed from the scene. De Gasperi led eight successive Cabinets from 1945 to 1953, and Mr. Andreotti served him as undersecretary of state, a post with considerable influence.

After the fall of Communism, Mr. Andreotti spent six months in 1990 as the president of the European Community, working to improve relations with the new democracies of the former Soviet bloc, to establish a European Central Bank and to keep world trade from becoming mired in protectionism.

He raised eyebrows in Paris and London by saying out loud what others had said only privately: that France and Britain should accept their diminished power and yield their permanent U.N. Security Council seats to the European Community and Japan.

His political career inspired biographies and an unflattering movie that gave him a dismal place in Italian history. The film, "Il Divo," by Paolo Sorrentino, won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008.

Asked for his reaction to the film, Mr. Andreotti told the Italian news media, "If you are a politician, I hear it's better to be criticized than ignored."

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