What is a Consigliere?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

The word consigliere comes from the Italian for counselor or advisor, most famously for an organized crime boss. In Mario Puzo's Godfather movie series, Robert Duvall's character Tom Hagen is a consigliere to the fictional Corleone crime family. Although Hagen is a practicing lawyer, the role is not limited to legal advice or protection. This person is also third in command of the entire Mafia family, and has the executive power to make decision in the boss' stead. Only the underboss, usually a blood relative to the boss, has more authority in an organized crime family.

Political candidates often employ a person to guide them through the campaign process.
Political candidates often employ a person to guide them through the campaign process.

The role of a consigliere is a remnant of medieval times when nobles of a conquered court would make themselves available to the new monarch. Only the most trusted and knowledgeable nobleman could become a consigliere, and he may serve several generations of the ruling family. The person could be replaced when the political winds shifted, but monarchs tended to keep only one at a time to avoid possible betrayal.

In the modern sense of the word, a number of political or social advisors to powerful families could earn the label of consigliere. It is often suggested that the Bush family, whose members include two presidents and a governor, have a consigliere, a veteran Republican politician named James Baker. Baker has held a number of political positions under both presidents named Bush, and in 2006 Baker headed a commission to evaluate the war in Iraq. Baker's advice and professional counseling for the Bush family matches the traditional role.

Other politicians and prominent public figures also depend on the services of a consigliere, although they may be reluctant to call their advisors by that name. Political candidates often employ a person to guide them through the campaign process. An effective political consigliere can prevent a candidate from making a tactical error, or aid in the spin control afterwards. Some politicians seek the advice of an advisor from an opposite party to see how their proposals would be received by dissenting voters.

Prominent entertainers also use the services of a consigliere to help guide their careers. Successful actors may want a person to make objective decisions about which scripts to accept, for example. Agents and directors may have their own agendas, so it is not unusual for in-demand entertainers to seek the opinions of a trusted advisor before signing any commitments or contracts.

As the character Tom Hagen discovers in the Godfather series, however, a consigliere's career in organized crime can end abruptly. When Michael Corleone, the son of the boss Vito Corleone, takes over control of the family, he promptly dismisses Hagen. While Hagen may have been extremely loyal to the Corleone family, his skills were not proven in the heat of battle. Michael Corleone famously explains that Hagen was not a "wartime consigliere". The family needed a new advisor who understood the complexities of the legal battles it was about to face.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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