“All political lives end in failure,” said Enoch Powell, but few fail as comprehensively as Silvio Berlusconi. He leaves office with his personal reputation in a shambles; bunga bunga parties at which septuagenarians courted the favor of under-aged prostitutes will be the most vivid image indelibly linked to his name. Criminal and civil court actions he staved off for years by shamelessly abusing the powers of his office will now crowd around him, poisoning his final years. His country is headed for international receivership, its influence, prestige and even independence fundamentally in question.Yet for all that, he was the most successful Italian politician of modern times; only Benito Mussolini held the reins longer or more tightly. Since World War Two no Italian was able to stay in office longer, fight off more rivals, overcome more crises or play a more prominent personal role in world affairs. He was memorable, as few Italian leaders have been for hundreds of years. He invented a new style of Italian political leadership and imprinted his personality on Italian affairs in a way no democratic statesman had ever done.What on first glance is both astounding and sad is that having achieved so much and amassed so much power, he did so very little with it. His only real accomplishments were sordid: he managed to pervert the course of Italian justice to protect his private interests and to insulate himself and his enormous economic interests from various charges and assaults.On deeper reflection, I am not sure that this is entirely fair to Berlusconi. Not that his determined efforts to insulate himself from various legal cases was anything but sad and disgusting, but I don’t think we are right to blame him for somehow squandering a great opportunity to change Italy for the better. His political genius was more to recognize that Italy didn’t want change and then to give the people what they wanted, with enough razzle dazzle and style to conceal the deathly inertia and paralysis at the heart of the political system.Aesop has the story of the frogs who asked Jupiter for a king to rule them. He sent a log down from the sky; King Log floated inertly in the pond. After time passed, the frogs were dissatisfied and they asked Jupiter to send them a more active and vigorous leader. Jupiter sent them a new king, King Stork, who proceeded to gobble up the frogs.Berlusconi was King Log; he filled the office but did not act. He floated on the surface of Italian politics — and he floated supremely well, with a near-perfect sense of the currents and the ripples around him. But he made no effort to change anything that did not affect his own comfort. He had no goal beyond staying on top.Had he tried to make changes, he likely would have lost his support much more quickly. There was no coalition for real change in Italy during his era; there may not be one even now. Many people are dissatisfied with the state of affairs in a country that has seen no growth for ten years, but they are dissatisfied in such different ways and want such different things that it is difficult and perhaps impossible to put together a coherent program for change that could command the necessary support. The north and the south in Italy, for example, are both unhappy with the status quo — but the north is angry that it sends so much money south, and the south is angry that it isn’t getting enough. Berlusconi’s coalition included reform minded northerners and patronage seeking southerners; to float like a log was the only thing he could do.Berlusconi’s fall from power doesn’t mean that an opportunity was lost. There was no opportunity for comprehensive Italian reform. It means that an era is ending; the dam has broken and the pond on whose surface he floated is draining away. The Italians haven’t asked for King Stork; if the system weren’t falling apart King Log could have floated on for another ten years.Berlusconi was perfectly matched to his era; that era has come to a close. The question now is whether Italy can find a real government to take a clear line of policy and to follow through on it, or will it respond characteristically to its latest foreign overlords: listening attentively to the diktats from Brussels and Frankfurt, looking busy and determined but in fact doing nothing at all?Berlusconi was the consummate Italian politician because he understood the dynamics of Italy so well. The Risorgimento or the unification of Italy is 150 years old; much to the frustration of generations of Italian leaders the resulting country has never been able to agree on very much or get much done. It seems unlikely that this basic fact of Italian life is going to change to suit the convenience of Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, but we will see.