WASHINGTON – Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi toasted President Bush with pieces of a podium Monday night while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was dubbed a "prima donna" during translation in a Columbus Day official dinner at the White House.
In his haste to honor Bush, Berlusconi accidentally bumped the podium from which he was speaking in the crowded dining room. It fell apart, leaving the grinning Italian to advance on the president with just its top and attached microphones. The crowd of prominent Americans, Italians, and Italian-Americans burst into appreciative laughter and applause.
"I'm 100 percent confident that we'll be friends forever," Berlusconi said.
Earlier, Bush singled out Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito Jr. as the first Italian-Americans to hold their positions. Bush also gave Pelosi, an Italian American and a Democrat, a nod for being the first woman speaker, which was translated into Italian as "prima donna." She chuckled, as did the audience.
The guests, including singer Frankie Valli, were entertained by performances from the hit musical "Jersey Boys" including some of the greatest hits of Valli and the Four Seasons, including "Big Girls Don't Cry" and "Walk Like a Man." At the end of the performance, Bush jumped up onto the stage to thank the performers, joined quickly by Prime Minister Berlusconi. "Frankie, come on up," Bush said, hugging Valli as he came onstage.
The dinner capped a day of meetings with Berlusconi, during which Bush announced that his administration will work to implement measures to help banks gain access to capital, strengthen the financial system and unfreeze credit markets.
"These are tough times for our economies yet we can be confident that we can work our way through these challenges and America will continue to work closely with the other nations to coordinate our response to this global financial crisis," Bush said Monday morning.
Berlusconi was in Washington after attending a meeting in Paris with leaders of countries that share the euro as currency. He said European countries have taken action that he hopes can prevent a financial crisis from damaging the economy.
"I am 100 percent sure and confident that we have the means and ways to prevent this from happening, and that the wealth of our citizens, the wealth that our citizens enjoy, will not be affected by this," the Italian leader said.
The Bush administration summoned executives from leading financial firms to a meeting Monday at the Treasury Department to work out details of the $700 billion plan aimed at thawing frozen bank lending that is stifling the economy.
The discussion focused on finalizing a financial market stability plan. which Congress passed on Oct. 3. The plan involved the government taking partial ownership in banks and purchasing bad debt from financial companies.
In Europe, central banks have begun taking unified actions to ease the credit crisis, which has shaken the global banking system. European markets opened strongly Monday following Asia's lead in response to the widespread government initiatives, a sign that coordinated efforts by European and U.S. authorities to prop up the banking system is bringing some relief to markets.
"We're addressing global challenges with determination and vision and with confidence," said Bush. who met over the weekend with finance officials from around the world. "People all over the world are understandably concerned about the global financial crisis and about how it will affect their families and their businesses."
Members of the U.S. and Italian media were assembled in the Rose Garden for the morning event. Typically, Bush's public statements alongside a foreign dignitary conclude with Bush and his foreign guest fielding inquiries from the media. But both Bush and Berlusconi left their podiums without taking any questions. A White House spokesman said that with the election just three weeks away, "you're not going to get a lot of questions from this president."
In his prepared statement, Bush said he appreciated Italy's participation in the weekend finance meetings and welcomed what he said were "bold and specific follow-up actions" by European nations to help resolve the crisis.
"The United States is also acting, and we will continue to implement measures consistent with the G-7 action plan to help banks gain access to capital, to strengthen the financial system, and to unfreeze credit markets and restore confidence in our financial system," Bush said.
Berlusconi said that Bush intends to meet with leaders of the Group of Eight organization of major industrialized nations — the members of the group of seven plus Russia — in the next few weeks to discuss the crisis. But White House press secretary Dana Perino rolled back expectations of a meeting.
"We're very open to a leaders meeting at some point in the future," she said. "Obviously, right now, the focus is on the coordinated actions taking place around the globe for the immediate economic challenges. There's no date or a decision on a meeting."