Berlusconi in Winter

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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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.

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."

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.

"I then understood that the only way possible in order to stop their ascent to power was to take advantage of the fact that I was the most popular entrepreneur in Italy at the time, thanks to television, publishing, and soccer. I also had many other sports. I had won the world championship of volleyball, the European championship of ice hockey. I sponsored rugby and a basketball team. In the polls there was 96 percent appreciation of me. When I saw there was no other candidate, against the advice of all my friends and all my family members, I understood that if I didn't step forward in the field of politics, nothing would happen. I decided to found a party, to stand for elections exactly and openly in order to stem the rise of the Communist party. Obviously, all of a sudden, my appreciation in the polls dropped from 96 percent to 50 percent in a week."

Few public figures would dare claim that their achievements in volleyball and rugby justified a significant political office. But Berlusconi has always taken an almost child-like delight in his achievements.

I suggest that this explanation makes him seem like a modern Cincinnatus, summoned from his plough to rescue his country. He runs his fingers through his hair, and looks off into a corner of the room, pondering the idea. "Eh. Certo." He likes it.

But why, 19 years after entering politics, is he still here? Why not return to soccer and topless game shows, which offer much more money and require much less personal exposure? He evidently loathes politics and jobbing politicians, after all. "I have met more ingrates and profiteers in politics than in any previous life as an entrepreneur." He also hates direct confrontation, whether in delivering bad news or upseting others to their face, two requisites in a political leader.

"My style as a manager and political leader has always been based on persuasion, not force," he says. "I don't know how to give orders. I know how to convince." He explains, "When you are in government you cannot seek only 'profit' for your country, you have to manage the interests of all your citizens and all different categories, interests that are often in contrast. Make one happy and you've made the other unhappy." Given the choice, Berlusconi would much rather make everyone happy, or so he says.

Last year, as Italy's economy flailed and the bond markets fretted that the country would default on its sovereign debt, it was Berlusconi's reluctance to confront the worst that undid him. Things were never so bad, he still insists. Yes, Italy's public debt is high, but so are its private savings. Add the two together, he argues, and suddenly Italy becomes the second strongest economy in Europe after Germany. "The Italian state is in debt, but Italian citizens, families, and companies are rich," he says. The debt only matters because it means taxes have to be high to pay for the interest. But there is plenty of wealth to tax in Italy, so what exactly were the bond markets fretting about?

But Italy's prospects are not so bright as he claims. Its birthrate is among the lowest in Europe and its growth rate is dismal. The great Italian post-war generation built a formidable economic base for the country, but that is today being depleted rather than renewed. Investors care about the future much more than the present, and Italy's future has not looked good for some time now.

More than the personal scandals that have beset Berlusconi, it is his failures as an economic steward which have disappointed his supporters. Many hoped he would be Italy's Margaret Thatcher, breaking the unions, reforming the labor laws, and modernizing the rigid economy. But he never did. He could not even muster a serious austerity plan last year, when it seemed as though the entire Italian economy was burning down, though his party commanded majorities in both houses of parliament. So a government of technocrats, under new Prime Minister Mario Monti, was appointed to do what Berlusconi could not.

"It is my fault and the fault of the Italians," he says. "It is my fault because I was unable to persuade 51 percent of Italians to give me my vote. It is the fault of Italians for dividing their vote, spreading it among many little parties." His party has never won more than 38 percent of the vote, forcing it into alliances with other right-wing parties. "We were castrati by these alliances. They did not allow us to introduce draft bills in the parliament as I would have liked."

Berlusconi then launched into a long digression about the flaws of Italy's constitutional system. First one house and its committees debate a bill, then the other, then back comes the bill for another round of edits before going up to the President of the Republic who can send it back to parliament if he doesn't like it, to start the process all over again. "If the government sent a thoroughbred horse to parliament, it would come back as a hippopotamus. All that remains of the horse is the Greek root 'hippo.'" But even the hippo isn't safe, because any magistrate can challenge any law in the constitutional court and have it overturned. The 15-seat constitutional court, he says, is dominated by the 11 members from the center left, and only four representing Berlusconi's center-right. "So, the work of some 1000 members of parliament, of a whole government over two years, is stultified by 11 people out of 15. This is the constitutional architecture of Italy."

Again, his frustration leads me to ask, why not give up and go back to business? "Because if I leave, that will be a triumph for the left." In any case, he says, "money is not so important." Generations of Berlusconi's have already been amply provided for. His work these days is to give his "most mature years of experience" to his country.

He will remain in politics, working to change the constitution so that it will concentrate more executive power in the Prime Minister. But he vows he will never again try to hold that office himself. He has chosen Angelino Alfano, a 41-year-old Sicilian lawyer, to lead his party, the People of Freedom. "I will stay in the party to support him. But I will be the noble father. The founding father. I will organize the support that he needs."

Nobility is not a quality many associate with Berlusconi. Ego, yes. Insecurity, bags of it. "Berlusconi lacks self-confidence," says Antonio Martino, his former foreign and defense minister, who holds the second-ever membership card issued by Berlusconi's Forza Italia political movement. Martino is a ribald Sicilian, an ever-smoking free-market economist, whose ideas once appealed to Berlusconi.

When they met in 1993, the first thing Berlusconi asked him was whether or not he liked soccer. Martino demurred. "For me, everything else is business," he recalls Berlusconi telling him. "But A.C. Milan is religion. Even if the most beautiful woman in the world asked to see me during a game, I would tell her to wait."

When Martino asked Berlusconi why he was going into politics, Berlusconi replied, "When I was in real estate, I said I would build a satellite city outside Milan and they laughed in my face. When I bought my football team and said I would win the championship, they laughed at me. When I created Mediaset, Gianni Agnelli [the late owner of Fiat], laughed in my face." By Martino's reasoning, Berlusconi went into politics to stick it to those who believed he couldn't.

"The problem is that I've never met any other successful person who talks so much about his successes."

As a businessman, Berlusconi has always inspired great loyalty. "My companies have never had an hour's strike against them," he says. "I used to spend Saturday mornings going to see and visit my staff and employees who for example were in hospital. I knew them all by name and I got to a point where I had 56,000 people working for me. In politics, it has been more or less the same. I was able to raise the sympathy, even the love of a lot of people. You should see when I go to rallies the people just physically wanted to get me, they'd follow me all the time. They say that in the history of Italy, there was not a politician able to move crowds as much as I was able to."

He talks, he claims, off the cuff without written speeches, and that his openness and personal contentment shine through. When he spoke to the salesforce at his television stations and advertising businesses, he would tell them it was vital to "carry the sun in your pocket," because optimism was attractive. "I am happy with myself," he says. "I am held in esteem by the people who love me. One third of the Italian people deeply love me and prove it to me all the time. When I walk down the streets, they clog them up, if I go to a restaurant, people stand up and clap and I can't pay a bill."

When he has failed, he believes, is when he has paid attention to his miserable critics, and let the sun in his pocket fade. The one lesson he took from Margaret Thatcher, he says, he took too late.

She once asked him to describe his working day. Up at 7:30, he told her, work all day. Then at 1:30 am read the next day's papers, get angry, and then sleep for five hours. "Really?" she said. "You read the newspapers?" "What do you do then, Mrs. Thatcher," Berlusconi asked her. She answered, "I read only the articles that speak well of me and my government, which my head of press brings to me in the morning."

"So I went back to my office and called the head of press, and I told him, Paulino, from now on, the Thatcher method," he told me. "Only the articles which speak well of me and my government. I haven't seen him in three months."

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.

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."

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."