Italian politics get more “interesting” every day. Francesco Cossiga, the head of state, is continuing efforts to convert his largely ceremonial position into something like the benign dictatorship of Charles de Gaulle. His most risky stunt so far was to order the junior officers at a carabinieri station to go on alert last November. Actually, he only advised them, but the message was clear: Cossiga was attempting to harden his symbolic role as commander-in-chief into practical control over the national police and the armed forces. This naked grab for power has added persuasive force to the campaign to drive Cossiga from office. The principal instigator of this plot has been Achille Ochetto, head of what used to be the Italian Communist Party.

The most general response to the president’s attempt to consolidate power is not so much alarm as disgust, because it is hard to take Cossiga seriously. The editors of Espresso must have been speaking for many Italians in declaring last December; “the real trouble with Cossiga, perhaps, is that he will not succeed in constructing anything, either good or bad. . . . Seeing that he is commander of the armed forces and that he loves images of war, one might rebaptize him Commander Zero.”

If the Italian political class is no more than annoyed by Cossiga, Senator Umberto Bossi has them quaking in their boots. A few months ago a split in the ranks of the Lega Lombarda had the leaders of the partitocrazia celebrating the demise of their only serious opposition. The Lega was predicted to do well in the late November election in Brescia (a significant industrial city in Lombardia), but still somewhere about five percentage points below the Christian Democrats. When the results were in, the Lega Lombarda was, by a hair, at the top of the list with 24.4 percent. The Christian Democrats came in with only 24.3 percent.

One-tenth of a point does not sound like much, but only a year ago, the Lega received only 20 percent in Brescia, as opposed to the Christian Democrats’ 32 percent. Despite the attempt to downplay the victory (the outgoing mayor told the Corriere della Sera that voting for the “Carroccio” was a refusal to choose), the effect of this dramatic upset has been demoralizing, especially when it is realized that a significant part of Bossi’s new support is coming from the ranks of good Catholics. A significant part of the credit for this goes to Irene Pivetti, who helped him organize the Consulta cattolica della Lega.

Instead of confronting Bossi head on, principle against principle, Italian journalists and politicians continue the slander campaign: “fascists,” “racists,” and “self-centered egoists” are among the kinder epithets being hurled at his followers. The great exception is the skeptical columnist, Giorgio Bocca, who describes this hysterical reaction as “a constant of political history . . . when the arrogance of a power too long without opposition is transfixed by this thought: could this really be the end? It is the moment of panic, when a power that believed it was based on the grace of God—either the extraterrestrial God or the ideological God—feels the weakening of the sacred certainties. It’s like someone who begins to hear the creaking and see the cracks in the ice, like one who calls out in the night and no one answers.”

The Italian crisis is more serious than the American crisis, and Bocca is more eloquent and intelligent than most American journalists, but his powerful images might easily be applied to our own situation. The man who calls out in the night and hears no answer may be George Bush afraid to take Pat Buchanan’s wake-up call to the White House.