Until a few years ago, Italian newspapers were like those in France. The private lives of politicians were off limits. Few politicians appeared with their wives in public either during campaigns or once in office. Under Berlusconi that all changed. "They could not find a way to attack me for my integrity or honesty," he says. "So an opportunity came up to create a case of an 18-year-old girl I visited for her birthday. This was totally made up. I never, never touched her in the way they said. I promised to be there for her birthday, for various special reasons. They then created an extraordinary case out of it. Then there was a series of other cases, all blown up and hyped."
The 18-year-old was Noemi Letizia, a Neapolitan underwear model, who knew Berlusconi as "papi," which means daddy. He gave her an $8000 necklace for her birthday and the Italian press suddenly wanted to know why. Both Berlusconi and Letizia maintained that they had known each other since she was a young girl. Her boyfriend, however, said Berlusconi had rung her personally after seeing her photograph in a modeling book. What is undisputed is that he turned up unexpectedly at her birthday party, at a restaurant in a Neapolitan suburb, and presented her with the necklace. It was when news of this broke that Veronica Lario called him "ill" and accused him of "consorting with minors".
After that, everything else came pouring out: prostitutes accusing him of orgiastic nights in Rome, Milan, and Sardinia, the alleged "bunga-bunga" parties, a rumored cavalcade of young women being paraded before the seemingly insatiable old goat. There was the farcical episode of Karima El-Mahroug, an 18-year-old who danced in nightclubs under the name Ruby Rubacuori, or Ruby Heart Stealer, who allegedly met Berlusconi when she was 16. She subsequently spent nights at Berlusconi's home in Milan and received gifts and money. When she was arrested by Milan police on a charge of theft, Berlusconi called the police station and demanded her release, claiming falsely that she was a relative of Egypt's former president, Hosni Mubarak. Both she and Berlusconi denied ever having sex. He said he gave her cash out of pity, she said he bought the company of young women to stave off loneliness.
Lawsuits and ridicule followed, accusations of under-age sex, perverting the course of justice, and using public money for private ends. Any lingering restraint about reporting on Berlusconi's private life was abandoned. Italian women protested against him in the streets. Meanwhile, the yields on Italy's sovereign debt kept rising, as the world worried that Italy's finances were as out of control as Berlusconi's sex life.
"There is nothing to forgive me for."
I asked him, Do you regret any of it? After all, it was not just him and his family and his reputation that suffered from this carnival. It was every Italian who has had to endure the pain of their faltering economy.
"I understood this and deeply regret it," he says, staring at the floor. "But I have nothing to ask forgiveness for. Everything I did was absolutely normal, absolutely legitimate. During the dinners I hosted, sure, there was the comforting aesthetic presence of belle ragazze," a phrase his translator coyly translated as 'pleasant ladies,' "but all the dinners were absolutely normal. There were orchestras, music, lots of waiters, lots of security people around, people that I didn't know very well, and they all wanted to know me."
He leans forward, hands on his knees. He wants to be absolutely clear about this. "I have a house with a wonderful park in Sardinia, with a whole series of museums, flowers, and plants, and everyone has this great desire to visit this wonderful place. When I spend my vacations in the summer in Sardinia, I receive requests for 30 or 40 visits to come and see me, from parliament, business people, people from show biz. So it was extremely convenient to put 80 to 100 people together and host a big dinner and show them around. I've created a museum of cactuses for example, one of the most complete in the world, a museum of the hibiscus, of palms, of citrus trees, it's very beautiful very pleasant. It's a unique opportunity. Then at the end, we'd have dinner, and after dinner there would be music, and after dinner dancing. It was something absolutely normal. It would relieve me of the pressure of 80 single meetings and appointments that I would have to give that would have taken away all my time."
All those women, then, were part of this elegant, holiday time-saving device. A way to round off a hard day of cactus and hibiscus viewing by horticulturally inclined parliamentarians. He crunches on the ice in his Crodino, a bright orange non-alcoholic aperitif. Berlusconi does not drink. "Many absurd stories were created. I cannot do privately things that are not correct. I must be absolutely correct. That is the behavior that I uphold. I did nothing. It's the others who have slandered me who have lied about what I do."
Was he then the victim of a stereotype of Italian men? He smiles broadly. "Sure. I'm not a Playboy, I'm a Play-uomo [Playman]" Then that deep laugh, heh-heh-heh. Later, he interrupts telling me about his family, to say: "The only thing I have not been accused of in all these over-hyped descriptions of my relations with women, with the opposite sex, the only thing they have never accused me of is being gay. I have nothing against homosexuals, let it be clear. Quite the contrary. I always thought the more gay people around, the less competition." His advisers, sitting on the couch beside him, the charming Valentino and Marco, are looking pained.
"I'm kidding," says Berlusconi. But don't you ever worry, I ask, that your kidding gets you into unnecessary trouble? "No. Those who want to criticize me create a misunderstanding and take advantage of this disposition of my character." Nor does he feel any need to ask for the Italian people's forgiveness, because "there is nothing to forgive me for. In Italy, they know me. They know what I'm like, that I'm correct, a good guy, I'm respectful of others. ... They don't think that what is reported in newspapers is the truth."
"We were castrati by these alliances.
At the end of our interview, Berlusconi waves me down a corridor to his private office, another baronial room with heavy wooden furniture and tables and chests groaning with silver-framed photographs and books. It is a room for a brooder and a schemer, not a radiant optimist.
Set against one wall is a double bass, a reminder of Berlusconi's musical interests. He used to sing in nightclubs and on cruise ships. Even today, he still writes the lyrics to love songs, which are performed by a Neapolitan guitarist named Mariano Apicella, whom Berlusconi met in a pizzeria after a political rally. They have produced three albums together, Il Primo Amore, Il Ultimo Amore, and Il Vero Amore. Berlusconi summons a footman to bring me copies of all three, along with a greatest hits collection, Napoli Nel Cuore (Naples in my heart), which has a drawing of the 16-year-old Berlusconi singing on the cover.
Berlusconi searches through a pile of books on a coffee table until he finds the one he wants. It is an album of photographs taken at a birthday party in Morocco for his former wife, Lario. He opens the album and begins to talk, rapidly, enthusiastically, touching my arm every few seconds. Lario thought she was flying to Portugal; when she arrived in Morocco, she stepped down from the plane and said, "this looks very dry for Portugal." Berlusconi gives his fingers a vigorous lick before turning the pages. Then she was taken shopping and in each shop she entered, one of her friends appeared as the shop assistant. Finally came dinner and the surprise. When everyone was seated, a figure appeared in the doorway, covered from turban to toe in royal blue cloth, its face invisible, but bearing a gift. The musicians played a slow march as the figure walked across the room and knelt before Lario.
"Look, you can see she thinks something strange is going on," says Berlusconi grinning like a child. "Because she recognizes the box is from her favorite jeweler in Milan." The figure in blue presents the gift, which Lario accepts. Then she pulls at the turban, and ta-da! It's Silvio! The final few photographs show him laughing and horsing around. It may be her party, but he is the center of attention.
A Roman journalist who has covered Berlusconi for most of his time in politics told me that he was by far the most attentive politician he had ever known. If the reporter had been standing alone outside a meeting until the early morning, Berlusconi would always to stop to talk to him. He loves seeing how people respond to his attention. He loves pulling people from the lowest ranks and bringing them into his world, and seeing the look in their eyes, that lottery winner gleam. He enjoys the power of being able to deliver such joy and to receive such gratitude.
The sequence of events at Larios' party reminded me of what he did for Noemi Letizia, the 18-year-old underwear model. The surprise visit to a birthday party, taking it over with his arrival, the gift of expensive jewelry. Was he, in showing me these photographs, trying to excuse his behavior? Was he telling me he was still in love with Lario, and that he regretted all he had done? Or was he being the inveterate salesman, seeking to make me more sympathetic and even complicit in his curious life?
With Berlusconi, Italian politics was sleazy, but without him it is dreary, Antonio Martino told me. As the austerity plans bite, Martino says, Italians are having second thoughts. "When the U.S. army arrived in Rome, they found graffiti on the walls, calling for the return of Mussolini. 'Give us back the stinker!' That's how we'll be feeling after a few more months of this."