The most interesting man in the world

Women, riches, power—Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi has it all. But is his act finally wearing thin?

The most interesting man in the worldSome years ago, one of Italy’s best-known journalists was summoned to a meeting with Silvio Berlusconi at the billionaire media magnate’s villa on the Riviera. Walking around the grounds, he stumbled across Veronica Lario, his boss’s (now soon-to-be ex-) wife, sunbathing nude while reading a philosophy book. Encountering Italy’s first lady in the altogether surely counts among life’s more awkward moments, but the late Indro Montanelli had made a career out of speaking truth to power. “Don’t worry,” was his infamous response. “You’re not showing me any poses I haven’t seen in the photographs your husband showed me.”

There’s no shortage of similar stories about the legendary libido and crassness of Italy’s 72-year-old prime minister. So when Lario wrote a series of open letters this spring detailing her unhappiness with her husband’s penchant for schwingy female candidates, and then announced she is seeking a divorce because of his extracurricular “consorting” with ever-younger women, there wasn’t much public sympathy for her plight. The 52-year-old former actress is, after all, Berlusconi’s second wife. And the story of their own love might have functioned as a cautionary tale. They met in 1980, when Lario was appearing in a play called The Magnificent Cuckold in Milan. Berlusconi, then married with two school-age children, tumbled head over heels while sitting in the audience. Although it’s never been clear what impressed him most—Lario’s acting, or the scene where she took off her top. For years, she was his very public mistress (Berlusconi divorced in 1986), and all three of their children were born before they finally tied the knot in 1990.

“Rock solid” is not a term that one would ever have used to describe their union. Berlusconi has always played up his satyr-like appetites. “Think of how many women there are out there who would like to go to bed with me, but don’t know it. Life is a problem of communication,” he once told reporters.

The PM’s indiscretions have kept his political and media opponents diverted for years. In 2007, Oggi magazine published photos of the septuagenarian holding hands and cuddling with “Berlusconi’s harem,” a group of five young women whom he had invited to spend Easter weekend at his lush Sardinian retreat. Last year, TV cameras caught him passing flirty notes to two of his young parliamentary deputies, Nunzia De Girolamo and Gabriella Giammanco. “Gabri, Nunzia, you look very good sitting there together. Thank you for sticking around but it is not necessary. If you have any gallants who have invited you to lunch, I authorize you to go. Many kisses both of you!!! Your Prime Minister.”

When he appointed another one of his proteges, Mara Carfagna (known as Mara La Bella), a former Miss Italy contestant and topless model, to his cabinet as minister for equal opportunities after his spring 2008 election victory, he couldn’t resist a joke about his jus primae noctis—literally, the right of the first night—as party leader. For the recent G8 summit in L’Aquila, Berlusconi had her stand in for his estranged wife and show the visiting first spouses the sights of Rome. (Carfagna has denied having an improper relationship with her boss, going so far as to sue an Italian comedian for an off-colour joke. But that didn’t stop the Argentinian newspaper El Clarín from publishing a story about a “highly erotic” conversation between the pair allegedly caught on a police wiretap, where the main topic of discussion was oral sex.)

Last summer brought not one, but two sex scandals. First the PM was caught on another phone tap arranging TV gigs for his “little butterflies”—five pretty, young actresses—with RAI, the state broadcaster, and seeming to promise financial benefits to the network’s head of drama in return. Then a military intelligence officer went to the papers with the story of the unusually close relationship between his estranged wife, the 32-year-old TV host Virginia Sanjust di Teulada, and Berlusconi. Not only did her career prosper, the officer alleged, but his too, as he moved up the ladder in exchange for keeping his mouth shut.

For a politician anywhere else in the world—and arguably even for other Italian political figures—just one such peccadillo would be enough to end a career. But they only seemed to enhance Berlusconi’s mythic status as “the most interesting man in the world.” (Sorry, Dos Equis guy, but you are a pimply nerd in comparison.) A shrimpy, perma-tanned, hair-plugged, vulgarian gaffe machine who has survived 12 corruption trials, counts among the world’s richest men, gets all the girls, and still, unaccountably, remains his country’s most popular leader. Teflon is like flypaper compared to Silvio Berlusconi.

Yet, there are signs that the act may finally be wearing thin with Italian voters. The indiscretion that tipped the scales for Lario—her husband’s alleged relationship with Noemi Letizia, an 18-year-old underwear model who calls him “Papi” (Daddy)—has elicited more icks than winks or nudges, especially given suggestions it started when Letizia was even younger. So, too, with a drugs and prostitution police probe in Bari, involving a local businessman and a transsexual talent scout, that is bringing almost daily revelations of high-priced call girls paid to attend Berlusconi’s legendary parties, or warm his bed. A recently leaked transcript of pillow talk between the PM and 42-year-old Patrizia D’Addario, a $1,500-a-night escort, set new lows. Berlusconi is heard explaining away his premature ejaculation as a “hereditary” problem, and brags about third-century BCE Phoenician tombs at his Sardinian villa that he has kept hidden from his own culture ministry. D’Addario says she released the tapes as revenge because Italy’s most powerful man failed to get her a permit for a bed-and-breakfast, or follow through on his promise of a seat in the European Parliament.

For weeks now, La Repubblica newspaper has been printing “10 questions” for the prime minister, including “Have you ever consorted with underage girls?” and “Would you still feel able to take part in Family Day or to sign a law punishing the clients of a prostitute?”

Berlusconi’s efforts to defuse the situation with a trademark quip—“I’ve never paid for a woman. I’ve never understood what satisfaction there is other than that of conquering”—have made things worse. In advance of July’s G8 summit, abruptly moved by Berlusconi from an island off Sardinia to the earthquake-ravaged town of L’Aquila in an act of “solidarity” last April, he found his personal approval rating below 50 per cent for the first time since he was returned to power in 2008. And when he toured the site of a deadly train derailment in Viareggio on June 30, locals mocked him mercilessly with shouts of “buffoon,” “whoremonger,” and even “pedophile.” Even one of Berlusconi’s daughters has taken her father to task. In the most recent Italian edition of Vanity Fair, 25-year-old Barbara is quoted as saying that politicians should uphold values. And, asked about the Letizia scandal, she said, “I never frequented old men—these are psychological links of which I have no experience.”

“In the past, he’s always looked like somebody who was in control and getting away with everything,” says Alexander Stille, the author of The Sack of Rome: How a Beautiful European Country With a Fabled History and a Storied Culture Was Taken Over by a Man Named Silvio Berlusconi. “But the latest scandals make him look like a doddering, senile old fool. A 72-year-old with fake hair and a fake face, surrounded by a bevy of women, deluding himself that they all want to crawl into bed with him.”

The deep-seated ambivalence that Italians have about their politicians—they expect nothing and demand even less—has always served a larger-than-life personality like Berlusconi well. His reality-TV-style politics, as Stille brands them, was at least entertaining for an electorate that tends to believe corruption is endemic, if not universal. But his greatest triumph—a return to office just two years after his bitter 2006 electoral defeat, with one of the most stable majorities in the country’s postwar history—is starting to seem more like a final act than a new chapter. Predicting Berlusconi’s demise has always been a mug’s game. But the future is becoming clearer. The man who will eventually defeat him is the one staring back in the mirror.

Luigi Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister’s late father, used to like to tell the story about Silvio’s allowance. When his son was 15, dad threatened to withhold his 500-lira-a-week stipend until Silvio explained how he spent it. The teenager flatly refused. And when Luigi eventually relented and left the money on the dining room sideboard per usual, Silvio wouldn’t take it. The incident encapsulated his son’s independence and stubbornness, he said—and what really makes him tick. “If you touch his pride, it’s curtains.”

Those who have studied Berlusconi’s rise in business and politics, like the Università degli Studi di Firenze historian Paul Ginsborg, see another characteristic. From an early age Berlusconi has always been a fierce proponent of liberty (the right to do as one pleases). Democracy? Not so much. History “has taught us to be wary of little men with big appetites,” he noted in his 2004 biography.

The boy from Milan likes to play up his “modest” roots. For example, Luigi’s beginnings as a bank clerk got a lot more play than his years as a bank director in Una Storia Italiana, the glossy 127-page hagiography the Berlusconi campaign mailed to every household in the country in 2001—at an estimated cost of as much as $100 million. And while it’s true that the Italian PM got his start as a lounge singer on Mediterranean cruise ships (he’s a big Sinatra fan and continues to write and record albums of love songs, often making presents of them to his female colleagues and employees), it was a brief interlude. After graduating from law school in 1961, Berlusconi turned his hand to real estate development, quickly earning the title of Milan’s “re del mattone” (“king of bricks”). By the late 1960s, his Milano 2 project—a huge, upscale, gated condo community near the airport—had made him a multi-millionaire.

But his real genius lay in sales, and recognizing that below Italy’s Old World culture lay a huge, unfulfilled appetite for lowbrow New World tastes. “I am in favour of everything American before even knowing what it is,” he told the New York Times in 2001. When a 1976 Supreme Court decision paved the way for private television, Berlusconi was among the first to invest. And despite rules that were supposed to keep private stations local, he quickly set about building a national network. Up against a grey and conservative state broadcaster, he won audiences by importing such U.S. hits as Dallas, The Love Boat, General Hospital and Magnum P.I. He also began broadcasting soccer—RAI showed just one half of a game each week—and revolutionized Italian television with a slate of T. & A.-rich programming. Among his biggest successes was Colpo Grosso (“Big Hit”), the world’s first naked game show. Advertisers flocked to his door, and by the mid-1980s Berlusconi had gained control of all three of the country’s private networks. In the early 1990s, he added Italy’s biggest book and magazine publishing company to a sprawling business empire that also featured an insurance company, an advertising firm, a supermarket chain, and soccer powerhouse AC Milan, his boyhood obsession.

When Berlusconi turned his sights to politics in 1993, he was already Italy’s richest and perhaps most famous figure—better known than Jesus among schoolchildren, according to one poll he commissioned at the time. And as he had done in television and his other businesses, he turned domestic politics on its head. His Forza Italia party (which appropriated its name and colours from the national soccer squad) sprang onto the scene fully formed, with 8,000 chapters across the country, and a slate of more than 600 candidates, many of them Berlusconi employees. All of his empire was harnessed to the cause, and Italy’s voters were hit with an unprecedented blitz of advertising casting the billionaire as a crusading outsider. “Citizen Kane on steroids,” Alexander Stille calls him in his book. In the March 1994 elections, Berlusconi’s coalition swept to power with Forza Italia winning the largest share of the vote, a little more than two months after it officially came into existence.

But Berlusconi’s attempts to run the country the same way he ran his businesses met with resistance. It didn’t help that many of his policies were nakedly designed to protect his own interests. For example, there was interference in the affairs of RAI. And, already under investigation for payoffs his companies had made to government officials, Berlusconi tried to appoint his own lawyer as minister of justice. (The attorney was later convicted of bribing judges.) A special cabinet decree, making it illegal for prosecutors to arrest people charged with white-collar crimes—including all forms of political corruption—and freeing those already in jail awaiting trial, proved a bridge too far. The coalition collapsed, just nine months after Berlusconi took power.

The spectacular failure didn’t seem to taint Berlusconi—rather, it simply served to strengthen his anti-politician myth. In opposition he railed against the perfidy of his coalition partners, claimed to be the victim of “Communist” prosecutors, and lamented “Non mi hanno fatto lavorare!” (“They wouldn’t let me work”). His holding company, Mediaset, grew to become the largest firm in Italy, and he moved into the top 40 on Forbes’ list of billionaires. When he and his coalition returned to government in 2001, it was with an even larger majority.

His second term, which lasted the full five years—only the second postwar PM to survive that long—cemented his reputation as a loudmouth and a Lothario. Lowlights included him using his fingers to give Spain’s foreign minister cuckold’s horns at a summit photo op, proclaiming the West’s “superiority” over Islam, and inviting a Wall Street audience to invest in Italy because of its beautiful secretaries. But the splashy controversies often camouflaged the bigger story—a never-ending parade of investigations and legal charges, including tax fraud, false accounting, embezzlement and bribery. (In his career to date, there have been 12 trials totalling more than 2,500 days, close to 600 visits from the police, and legal bills in excess of US$270 million. While several of his associates have been convicted, Berlusconi has remained untouched, securing acquittals, overturning guilty verdicts on appeal, or simply by running out the limitations clock on some of the counts.) But through it all, his popularity at home remained strong. In the end, the narrow second defeat in 2006 had more to do with his attempts to “reform” the electoral system than anything else. (The confusing mix of proportional representation and “bonus” seats ended up benefiting the centre-left, rather than Berlusconi’s own coalition, as most had expected.)

The political obituaries were readied. Berlusconi’s health seemed poor (he underwent heart surgery at a U.S. clinic in late 2006, after collapsing onstage at a party rally), and he announced his intention to retire from public life. But the man who compared himself to Churchill, Napoleon and Jesus—in the course of a single week on the campaign trail—stuck around. When Romano Prodi’s leftist coalition fell apart in early 2008, a reinvigorated Berlusconi found his stride, and a way back into the hearts of right-leaning Italians, combining vows to slash taxes with fiery rhetoric about crime and “evil” illegal immigrants. “Rialzati!” (“Get yourself up!”) was the pointed campaign slogan.

The third term started off with a public-relations success—imposing an end to Naples’ festering garbage crisis. And Berlusconi appears to have fulfilled one long-standing ambition: convincing parliament to pass a law granting the Italian prime minister, president and speakers of both houses immunity from prosecution while in office. “You’ve freed me,” the grateful billionaire reportedly told senators behind closed doors. “Finally, the magistrates can’t persecute me anymore.” (The country’s constitutional court is currently reviewing the legality of the law, although it has emerged that the prime minister recently had dinner at the home of one of the judges who will make the ruling.)

But it’s hard to shake the growing sensation that Berlusconi’s time may have passed. For a leader who is used to perpetual scandal, there seems to be a new air of distraction. His free-form ramblings about “shutting down” global markets during the height of the economic crisis last fall won him no kudos from his fellow world leaders. And in advance of the G8, there was much sotto voce sniping from other participants about Italy’s failure to set any sort of real agenda for the discussions. But the global downturn may have done him a favour domestically, distracting attention from his own disastrous financial stewardship: Italy is now in its fourth recession in seven years, has the biggest debt in Europe, and faces a budget deficit that equals a whopping 9.3 per cent of its GDP.

Is this finally the end of Berlusconi? Grant Amyot, an Italian politics specialist at Queen’s University who wrote a book asking just that question back in 2005, says he still struggles to get a handle on what it would take to break Silvio’s spell. Perhaps an even worse economy, or an equally charismatic leader on the left. “By and large, he went into politics to protect his own business interests and to protect himself,” says Amyot. “But many Italians recognize him as an ordinary person, despite all his faults. He’s not a member of a stuck-up political class who speaks in coded language.”

Alexander Stille detects the symptoms of a dangerous political disease: boredom. “Berlusconi had the entire country in the palm of his hand, a huge majority; he could pass any law that he liked. But as his power has become absolute, his behaviour has worsened,” he says. Perhaps all the man who once called himself the “Jesus Christ of Italian politics” needs is a little motivation to stage another miraculous comeback. “Being cornered brings out his aggressive side,” says Stille. “He almost seems to need a crisis.”

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