By Nicole Winfield and Colleen Barry
ROME — Giulio Andreotti personified the nation he helped shape, the good and the bad.
One of Italy’s most important postwar figures, he helped draft the country’s constitution after World War II, served seven times as premier and spent 60 years in Parliament.
But the Christian Democrat who was friends with popes and cardinals was also a controversial figure who survived corruption scandals and allegations of aiding the Mafia: Andreotti was accused of exchanging a “kiss of honor” with the mob’s longtime No. 1 boss and was indicted in what was called “the trial of the century” in Palermo.
He was eventually cleared, but his legacy was forever marred.
Still clinging to his last official title, senator-for-life, Andreotti died Monday at age 94 after an extended period of poor health that included a hospitalization for a heart ailment.
Andreotti grew more stooped with age, and infirmity kept him from what few official duties remained, such as opening the inaugural session of the new Senate in March, a privilege reserved for the eldest-serving member that fell this time to the next-in-line.
Andreotti, a key player in the Christian Democratic Party that dominated politics for nearly half a century, helped bring prosperity to what was once one of Europe’s poorest countries. When a corruption scandal flushed out the old political guard in the 1990s, marking the end of the first Italian Republic, he survived.
But he lost political clout after he became a senator-for-life in 1991, an appointment that freed him from electoral cycles but also deprived him of capital in the backroom deal-making that helped create his reputation as a Machiavellian politician. And so, Italy entered the so-called second republic, characterized by stalemates and infighting, and dominated by other men, such as Silvio Berlusconi.
Arguably among Italy’s most important statesmen, having also served eight times as defense minister and five times as foreign minister, Andreotti will be buried with a small private Mass, not a state funeral befitting of his contributions to the nation. The choice was made by his family, according to Italian media, and is perhaps a reflection of his mixed legacy.
The condolences that flowed in also underscored Italy’s uncertain judgment on a figure who dominated discourse for decades.
In announcing the death, Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno called Andreotti “the most representative politician” Italy had known in its recent history. Pier Ferdinando Casini, a centrist political leader, said he was certain that “history will give this statesman a more sober and serious opinion than his detractors made during his life.”
President Giorgio Napolitano, at 87 a contemporary of Andreotti, said history would judge his career but he wanted to extend a national salute to a man who represented Italy overseas and in Europe with “exceptional” skill.
Center-left Premier Enrico Letta was similarly cautious in his condolences, saying Andreotti was a first-rate “protagonist” in Italy’s democracy and public life.
Andreotti’s political career was as varied as it was long, with posts covering everything from cinema to sports. Born in 1919, he once noted that he had outlived two other Italian phenomena that emerged that year: fascism and the precursor of his Christian Democrats, the Italian Popular Party.
“Of all three, only I remain,” he said.
Andreotti was well-known for his political acumen, subtle humor and witty allusions. With sharp eyes, thin lips and a stooped figure, he was immediately recognizable to generations of Italians. Friends and foes alike admired his intellectual agility and his grasp of the issues.
Andreotti’s rise in the Italian political scene mirrored the rise of Italy, which was emerging from two decades of fascist dictatorship under Benito Mussolini. He joined the conservative Christian Democrats, was part of the assembly that wrote the constitution and was elected to Parliament in 1948.
He remained there ever since.
He held a series of Cabinet positions after World War II until he became premier for the first time in 1972. Twenty years later, he finished his last stint as premier.
Although staunchly pro-American and a firm supporter of Italy’s NATO membership, Andreotti was the first Christian Democrat to accept Communist support, even if indirect, in one of his governments. The Cabinet that was formed after big Communist gains in the 1976 election needed the Communists and other leftists to abstain — rather than cast “no” votes — during parliamentary votes.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell called Andreotti a “friend to the United States” who ably represented Italy in transatlantic relations, but said he would leave it to historians and the Italian people to judge his legacy.
By the early 1990s, a vast anti-corruption drive led by Italian prosecutors — the “Clean Hands” probe — swept through parliament and hobbled most political parties. Andreotti’s Christian Democrats were among them, but the scandal did not touch him personally and he managed to stay on as premier until an election in 1992.
Soon, however, an even more damaging accusation would hit Andreotti. In 1993, a Mafia informer told prosecutors that Andreotti had been involved in the 1979 slaying of Mino Pecorelli, a muckraking journalist killed in a mob-style execution in Rome by four shots from a pistol with a silencer.
Pecorelli’s articles had often targeted Andreotti, along with a range of public figures. Andreotti was sometimes referred to in print as “The Godfather.”
The prosecution argued that the Mafia killed Pecorelli at the behest of Andreotti, who allegedly feared the reporter had dug up compromising information. Andreotti has always denied the charges, saying he was targeted by mobsters who were trying to get even for his crackdowns on organized crime.
The lengthy case — dubbed by the Italian press “the trial of the century” — resulted in an acquittal in 1999; a shock conviction and a sentence of 24 years in prison by an appeals court in November 2002; and, in the third and final judgment a year later, another acquittal.
“Some might have hoped I wouldn’t get here. But here I am, thanks to God,” Andreotti, then 84, said at the time of the final ruling.
In a separate case during the same years, Andreotti stood trial in Palermo on charges that he colluded with the Mafia. But he was cleared in that case, too.
Palermo prosecutors relied heavily on accounts by Mafia turncoats, including a mobster who testified that Andreotti had once exchanged a “kiss of honor” with Salvatore Riina, the “boss of all bosses” and a longtime fugitive captured in 1993. They alleged Andreotti granted the mob favors in exchange for their delivering Sicilian votes for his party.
Andreotti also denied those charges, again maintaining he was a victim of mobsters seeking revenge for his fight against the Mafia.
Berlusconi, the three-time premier who himself has been the target of prosecutors’ probes over the years, called Andreotti an “icon” against whom Italy’s leftists fought battles “based on demonizing their adversary and judicial persecution, a trial Andreotti overcame with dignity and composure — and won.”
Andreotti was born to schoolteachers in Rome on Jan. 14, 1919. He earned a law degree at Rome University and became a journalist after graduation.
During World War II he worked as a librarian in the Vatican, and it was there that he met several politicians, including Alcide De Gasperi, later one of Italy’s foremost postwar statesman.
At age 35, Andreotti became Italy’s youngest interior minister. It was the beginning of a career during which he navigated the Byzantine world of Italian politics like no other, accumulating power, honors and enemies along the way.
Such was his reach that he was sometimes called “Divo Giulio” — a play on his name Giulio and the Latin “Divus Iulius” (or Divine Julius), which was used for Julius Caesar. His critics called him Beelzebub for what they considered his diabolical skills.
The one political prize he never achieved was to become president of the republic, a largely ceremonial but highly regarded office. He came closest in 1992, but his efforts failed amid the “Clean Hands” corruption scandals.
A devout Roman Catholic, Andreotti maintained solid ties to the Vatican throughout his political career. His Rome address was close to the centers of political power but also just across the Tiber from St. Peter’s Square.
He wrote numerous books, some of them best-sellers, wrote articles for Italian publications and edited the monthly Catholic magazine 30 Giorni. He was courted on TV shows for his deep knowledge of Italian and world affairs as well as for his humor.
A probing portrait of him in the film “Il Divo” was honored with the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008. He even made a guest appearance as himself in the movie, “Il Tassinaro” (“The Taxi Driver”) with the late comedian Alberto Sordi.
The Italian Olympic Committee CONI said a moment of silence would be held at all sporting events this week to honor his service as president of the organizing committee of the 1960 Rome Olympics.
Andreotti was married to Livia Danese. He is survived by his wife, their four children and their grandchildren.