3 November 2020

Giovanni Leone - controversial politician

First president to resign over a scandal

Giovanni Leone served twice as prime minister in the 1960s
Giovanni Leone served twice as prime
minister in the 1960s
The politician Giovanni Leone, who served both as prime minister of Italy and president during a career that spanned seven decades but which was ultimately overshadowed by scandal, was born on this day in 1908 in Naples.

A co-founder, with his father, Mauro, of the Christian Democracy in 1943, Leone was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1948, served as prime minister for brief periods in 1963 and 1968 and was elected president in 1971.  He occupied the Palazzo Quirinale, the main Rome residence of the president, for seven years but was forced to resign after being implicated in the Lockheed bribery scandal, the first president to step down over such an impropriety.

The accusation levelled at him was that he accepted payment from the American aircraft manufacturer in connection with the purchase of Hercules military transport planes. The allegations originated from the United States and were published in Italy by the news magazine L’Espresso.  Other politicians were said also to have accepted bribes but Leone was accused directly after documents unearthed in the US referenced an Italian prime minister given the codename Antelope Gobbler as one of the recipients of money.  This was taken to mean Leone - lion.

A Swiss-based businessman revealed to be associated with the deal, Antonio Lefebvre, was also a close friend of Leone. The scandal caused significant damage to Leone and his office and, after several months, he resigned.  The accusations were never proven and one of his most prominent accusers was convicted of libel, yet Leone was never fully rehabilitated.  A former defence minister, Mario Tanassi, was eventually handed a prison sentence relating to the scandal, and some commentators speculated that other high-ranking politicians who escaped censure were happy for Leone to be the scapegoat.

Leone was accused of accepting bribes over contracts for the Hercules military transport plane
Leone was accused of accepting bribes over
contracts for the Hercules military transport plane
Brought up in the Pomigliano d'Arco suburb of Naples, Leone graduated in law at the University of Naples and became one of southern Italy’s most prominent lawyers and jurists, lecturing at the universities of Messina, Bari and Naples.

After the end of the Nazi occupation of Italy in World War II, Leone, who had been a military magistrate, was one of the founders of the Christian Democrat Party (DC), led by Alcide Gaspari. As the party’s provincial secretary for Naples, he became a prominent figure in the new party and was elected as a deputy in 1948 with 60,000 votes.

In all, he was elected to parliament four times, serving as speaker of the Chamber of Deputies between 1955 and 1963, and twice as prime minister, in 1963 and 1968, although on both occasions he was in office only as a stopgap because the prime candidates had been unable to command sufficient support.  Continuing to practise law and lecture while serving as a deputy, Leone remained detached from the rival factions within the DC and was thus able to fulfil the role of compromise candidate.

He became president in similar circumstances. Unable to choose between Amintore Fanfani and Aldo Moro, the Christian Democrats opted for Leone, although it took an exhausting 23 ballots for them to reach that conclusion, making it the longest presidential election in Italian political history. Controversially, his victory was assisted by votes from the neofascist Italian Social Movement (MSI).

The diminutive Leone pictured during a meeting with US president Gerald Ford in 1974
The diminutive Leone pictured during a meeting
with US president Gerald Ford in 1974
Leone made an unconventional president, notable for his strong Neapolitan accent and a sense of humour that made no concession to the supposed dignity of his office.  He was caught more than once making the two-fingered ‘horns’ gesture - a traditional southern Italian gesture used as an insult or to ward off the evil eye - on one occasion during a visit to cholera patients at a Naples hospital. 

The behaviour of his family also did little for his reputation. His three sons - Mauro, Paolo and Giancarlo - led something of a playboy lifestyle, often touring Roman nightclubs with their presidential bodyguard. His wife, Vittoria, who came from a well known family in Caserta, was a glamorous woman 20 years Leone's junior and a high-profile society hostess who was frequently the subject of gossip and innuendo. 

Their exploits featured regularly in the pages of the magazine Osservatore Politico, whose editor, Mino Pecorelli, claimed he was offered a substantial sum of money to abandon what Leone saw as a personal campaign against him. Pecorelli was killed in a shooting a year after Leone resigned.

Apart from the Lockheed scandal, the other stain on Leone’s character was the Vajont Dam disaster, which occurred during his 1963 term as prime minister.  The catastrophe, in which 50 million cubic metres of water was sent cascading over a dam in Friuli-Venezia Giulia following a landslide, killed almost 2,000 people in villages situated below the dam. 

The kidnapping and murder of former prime minister Aldo Moro took place during Leone's presidency
The kidnapping and murder of former prime minister
Aldo Moro took place during Leone's presidency 
The dam was jointly owned by the Italian government and the Adriatic Society of Electricity (SADE), both of whom were found to have ignored warnings of the instability of the mountainside that ultimately collapsed into the reservoir. Leone vowed to secure justice for the victims of the disaster, but soon after leaving office he was hired as head of SADE's team of lawyers, who argued successfully to reduce the amount of compensation paid to survivors and left the families of 600 victims with no compensation at all. 

Leone's presidency coincided with the so-called Years of Lead, one of the most turbulent periods of recent Italian history, marked by assassinations, bombings and terrorism. The kidnap and murder of former prime minister Moro by the Red Brigades took place just a few months before the Lockheed scandal.

In political terms, Leone was no great friend of Moro, who positioned himself on the centre-left in the spectrum of values within the DC, whereas Leone was well to the right. It had been Moro who had fostered the idea of the so-called Historic Compromise by which the Communists of Enrico Berlinguer would have become part of the government.

Yet when Moro was being held captive at a location in Rome, Leone argued that the government should negotiate with the Red Brigades for Moro’s release, perhaps even agreeing to the release of political prisoners that had been at the head of their demands. Prime minister Giulio Andreotti refused.

Leone was made a life senator despite the circumstances of his resignation and continued to make an active contribution to political life.  Retiring to his luxury villa, Le Rughe, in Via Cassia on the outskirts of Rome, he devoted himself to the study of law and, through his writings and interviews, convinced many of his detractors that the accusations made against him had been false. He died in 2001, a few days after his 93rd birthday.

Piazza Municipio in the Naples suburb of Pomigliano d'Arco
Piazza Municipio in the Naples suburb of
Pomigliano d'Arco 
Travel tip:

Situated 17km (11 miles) northeast of the centre of Naples, Pomigliano d'Arco is effectively a suburb of the city, although it is an independent municipality. A former farming town, it is now much more industrial. Chosen as the site for a southern factory by car makers Alfa Romeo in 1938 - now owned by the FIAT-Chrysler group and one of the biggest auto plants in Italy - it now has factories in the aerospace and aeronautics sectors as well. During World War II, Pomigliano was the location of a large military airfield and base. 

A picturesque narrow street in the historic centre of Formello
A picturesque narrow street in the
historic centre of Formello
Travel tip:

The Via Cassia was an ancient Roman road stretching northwest of the centre of Rome that essentially traversed the central area of the Italian peninsula once known as Etruria, through what is now Tuscany and on towards the port of Genoa in Liguria.  The section immediately beyond the city centre begins after the Milvian Bridge across the Tiber and passes through the Tomba di Nerone area. Leone’s villa, Le Rughe, was situated near the small town of Formello, about 30km (19 miles) outside the city, close to where the Via Cassia merges into the SR2 motorway. Formello has a picturesque historic centre.

Also on this day:

1560: The birth of painter Annibale Carracci

1801: The birth of opera composer Vincenzo Bellini

1918: The signing of the Villa Giusti armistice

1931: The birth of actress Monica Vitti


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