Berlusconi in Winter

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In his most extensive interview since leaving office, the former Italian prime minister on what he's learned from being forced out, what he hasn't, and why he still wants to transform Italy.

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Reuters

The most ridiculed political figure in Europe insists he is not inclined to dark nights of the soul. His eldest daughter calls him twice a day, the way his late mother used to. He has five children and six grandchildren and all the money in the world. He remains the leader of the largest political party in his country, and under the usual democratic rules would be the prime minister.

Today, though, Silvio Berlusconi sits on the margins, a towering figure in Italian public life but relegated to the gallery, while a government of unelected technocrats tries to save his country from economic shambles.

As galleries go, it's a good one. There is the vast apartment in the Palazzo Grazioli in Rome, across the road from the Palazzo Venezia, where Mussolini held court. There is the yacht and the magnificent villas in Milan and Sardinia. But the word in Rome is that he is depressed, a solitary figure, pacing through the dark corridors of his homes, barred from talking to friends because of the many lawsuits against him, terrified of picking up the phone for fear it is tapped, with only his security guards for friends.

"It is my fault and the fault of the Italians."

In 2008 and 2009, he lost several of the most important women in his life, his mother and sister, who died, and then his wife, Veronica Lario, who left him over what she called his "uncontrollable" obsession with younger women.

But to meet Berlusconi in person is to meet a sly, amusing, solicitous character, who despite all his of best efforts at disguise, thick make-up, and dyed chestnut hair, cannot hide his true mileage. 76 years in, Berlusconi years would be three or four times that for most ordinary mortals and it shows. After years of close attention to his physique, he is suddenly fat. His large belly hangs over the waistband of his dark blue jogging pants. He has deep bags under his eyes. But he is anything but creaky. He bounces around on his black trainers with their stacked heels, his hands and shoulders moving constantly as he talks.

When he is perorating about the inadequacies of the Italian constitution, he leans back in his yellow silk sofa, right ankle on his left knee, and runs his hand through his hair, like an emperor surveying his slaves. But when he has a meatier point to make, a defense of his sex life, for example, he leans forward and thrusts his hands up and down between his legs as if potting a large plant.

Despite a world that scorns him and the prosecutors who gnaw at him daily, here he is, bouncing, talking, laughing at his own jokes, boasting of his achievements, taunting his critics and apologizing, just barely, for how his personal life brought Italy so low. He is Silvio crudo, raw, untouched by the rules of public life, which render most politicians banal and cautious -- and all the more compelling for it.

It is shortly after 7 pm on the last Friday in January when I arrive at the Palazzo Grazioli. Here in Berlusconi's apartment, there is absolute quiet. The heavy curtains are drawn. Footmen in grey waistcoats and dark jackets flit through the tall, wood-paneled corridors. It is regal and depressing, like the home of an embittered minor duchess, an improbable setting for the bunga-bunga sex parties alleged to have gone on here.

Berlusconi in the flesh is larger than he appears on television, even accounting for the thick heels. He is broad in the shoulders and has a deep, leathery voice.

"You know that I am a great expert about women," he says, immediately after settling in to talk. "Yesterday I got a call from my daughter. I have a grandson who is four years old, one of my six grandchildren. He went to Formentera and was eating pizza with his mother and some old friends. The pizza maker was Italian, and his daughter was serving at the table. She was very pretty. So my grandson was fascinated by this girl. He asks her, 'what is your name?' 'Caterina,' she says. 'Oh, you are so beautiful Caterina. What beautiful eyes you have Caterina.' Then he made his move." Berlusconi points the first and second fingers of his right hand and twists them sharply.

"He says, 'If tomorrow, Caterina, you come to the zoo with me, I shall show you where the crocodiles are.' He is fascinated by crocodiles, because they look like a prehistoric animal. So Caterina went back to the kitchen to her father and said, 'Berlusconi's grandson is exactly like his grandfather. He asked me out to go see the crocodiles.' So the father had a laugh about it, and made a crocodile shape out of pizza dough. Caterina goes and serves the crocodile dish to the table. The plate had not touched the table, when Alessandro says, 'Look Caterina, if you come with me tomorrow to the zoo, I want to show you the crocodiles. The real ones!'"

Berlusconi leans back and smiles, an improbably white, game show host smile, and his eyes crease upwards. "You have two sons," he says to me, shortly afterwards. It is a classic salesman's trick. Disarm your customers by showing you think of them as people not marks. Of course, I must understand what little boys are like. Yes, Berlusconi is suggesting with his story. He may be a womanizer, but don't be pious. Showgirls, stripper poles, and orgies, and a four year old flirting with a pizza waitress. It's all just human nature.

It is often forgotten outside Italy that long before Berlusconi became a political punchline he was a formidable entrepreneur. When I call him a businessman he flinches. "I was not a businessman. I was an entrepreneur."

"I'm not a Playboy, I'm a Playman."

Berlusconi the entrepreneur built his fortune in construction and then multiplied it in media and sports. He revolutionized Italian television, creating sharp and wildly popular commercial programs to compete with the dreary state-run channels. When he started out, the only soccer you could watch was one half of one match shown on a Sunday by RAI, the state broadcaster. By the time he was done, soccer was ubiquitous, not just the games, but endless shows discussing the games.

Yes, there were also game shows in which housewives slowly removed their clothes, but Berlusconi would never have succeeded had the Italians not devoured everything he gave them. Along the way, he also created a television advertising industry in Italy. By the early 1990s, he was one of the richest men in Europe.

He achieved all this with no inherited wealth or influence, a remarkable feat in Italy, where family dynasties still dominate business. It was always just him, his energy, his tenacity, and his charm. He remains insistently proud of this because others tend to lose sight of it amid the gaudier distractions. Politics has always been rather a come-down.

"I entered politics not because I loved it, because I needed to," he says. "Because my country was running the risk of being governed by a party which came out of orthodox Communism. Since I've always felt that Communism was the most inhuman and criminal philosophy in history, I really feared that Communists could take power in this country. The Italian prosecutors had practically destroyed all of the five [major] Western democratic parties, which had been ruling Italy over the previous 50 years, guaranteeing strong economic growth, democracy and freedom."

Berlusconi says that, in 1993, he was shown polls suggesting that the Communists might win 80 percent of the seats in parliament. Bribery and corruption investigations led by Milanese magistrates in the early 1990s had implicated almost every major political and business figure in Italy. Berlusconi says he tried to pull the centrist and right wing parties into a coalition, but couldn't persuade them to unite against the red threat.

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Philip Delves Broughton is a regular contributor to The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Spectator. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School and The Art of the Sale: Learning from the Masters About the Business of Life, which will be published in April.

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