Silvio Berlusconi will always remain suspect to the Germans. On Feb. 24, for example, the Italian prime minister was standing next to French President Nicolas Sarkozy and before the world press. Sarkozy was talking about the bilateral recognition of university degrees. Berlusconi suddenly bent over and, with a lewd grin on his face, whispered something to Sarkozy. Sarkozy smiled uncomfortably and said: "Well, uh, I don't know if I should repeat that ..."
Later on, a French television station had someone read Berlusconi's lips. He apparently said: "I gave you your wife ..."
The sentence had nothing to do with university degrees or the situation at hand, and had even less to do with reality. But it did provide an indication of what this man was thinking as he stood next to the husband of Italian-born Carlo Bruni.
Silvio Berlusconi is obsessed with power, which means he is also obsessed with sex, and he doesn't seem to care if anyone knows. In fact, Berlusconi is as comfortable talking in public about his facelifts and hair transplants as he is discussing the health of his little friend.
Last October, Berlusconi was spotted outside a Milan nightclub in the early morning hours. He had just come from a Paris meeting on the financial crisis and was eager to be among people. "If I sleep for three hours," he said to a group of people standing outside with him, "I have enough energy to make love for another three hours." This was the head of the Italian government speaking, the leader of one of the founding members of the European Union. He is now 72.
From time to time, Berlusconi's groin seems to take over from his brain. In January, after a series of rape cases, he promised to provide more security. But then he said: "We ought to have as many soldiers are there are pretty girls in Italy. But I don't believe that we will ever achieve this."
Berlusconi's body has become his medium, and he uses it with as little hesitation as he does the television stations he owns. For Berlusconi, appearances count and the superficial is his message. In fact, the obsession with Il Cavaliere's body, as Berlusconi is called at home, has even become its own branch of sociology.
The book "The Superleader," by Milan communications expert Federico Boni, was published last November. Last week, it was joined by Marco Belpoliti's iconic study titled "The Body of the Capo." Studies have been done on Berlusconi's smile and his use of religious symbolism. Sociologists decode the body of this powerful man and attempt to read and interpret it, as if it somehow concealed the secret of his success. Perhaps it does. He is the anti-politician in power, the showman as statesman, the buffo as duce. He is everything and the opposite of everything.
Mussolini is known to have taken on various roles, posing as a farmer, a horseman, a laborer, businessman, soldier or father. "But," says Federico Boni, "the picture made sense in Mussolini's case. He was the Il Duce serving his country. Berlusconi, on the other hand, is a superhero without characteristics. Like a comic book figure, he can assume any shape: football coach, messiah, sex-crazed monster and family man, national leader and nightclub pianist, devout Catholic and libertine, industry boss or factory worker."
There is even something feminine about him. "The smooth face, the hatred of sideburns and beards, the somewhat compulsive hygiene, the narcissism, the consistently well-groomed and perfect appearance suggest a feminized, powdered man," says Berlusconiologist Stephen Gundle. Like most of his female voters, Berlusconi watches his diet, has unwanted hairs removed and has cosmetic surgeons do away with wrinkles and excess fat.
Berlusconi is both a seducer and a product. He has fashioned himself into a name-brand, consumer product that conveys only one message: Take me! The more powerful Berlusconi becomes, the more the public seems to be interested in his body or, to be more precise, his crotch.
The minutes of a wiretapped telephone conversation between two female members of the government turned up in Naples last summer. The women were supposedly discussing techniques for convincing the prime minister to make concessions during budget talks, and one of them mentioned the word "pompetta," or "little pump." This triggered rumors about the possibility that Berlusconi could have a prosthetic penis. Comedic actress Sabina Guzzanti declared publicly: "One cannot appoint someone to be minister for equal opportunity simply because she is sucking your dick."
The minister in question, Mara Carfagna, threatened to sue the actress. Guzzanti's father, a former senator from Berlusconi's camp, took his daughter's side and has since left Forza Italia, the party led by Berlusconi.
It would be a trifling matter if the anecdote did not draw attention to an approach to politics that draws no distinctions whatsoever between the private and the public, and is even more widespread in Italy than in Sarkozy's France.
Berlusconi has turned entertainment into politics and politics into a reality show. His attorney was appointed justice minister and his personal doctor a member of parliament -- next to various other former employees and female companions. A former showgirl and pinup girl represents the interests of women in Berlusconi's cabinet.
Before Mara Carfagna became a member of the government, she worked for Berlusconi's television station. Not too long ago, she was telling viewers about her measurements and her days as a contender in the Miss Italy contest. A video on YouTube shows Carfagna, in her pre-cabinet days, pulling her skirt up to her hips, revealing that she doesn't appear to be wearing anything underneath. One of Carfagna's first initiatives was to introduce a new law making street prostitution a crime.
Berlusconi has liberated Italian television from the control of bishops and led it to the promised land of consumerism. This is his historic achievement. In 1983, his television channel Italia 1 invented the phenotype of the "Velina," a creature with large breasts and long legs. Since then, almost every TV show has featured a Velina, usually standing next to constantly talking, short-legged men. There is even a Velina contest today. A large percentage of Italian girls aspire to become a Velina, hoping that this will enable them to marry a football player or a pop star -- or become a minister.
An unforgettable incident in Berlusconi's past was a wiretapped telephone call between Berlusconi and his special advisor, Marcello Dell'Utri, on New Year's Eve, 1986. In the conversation, Berlusconi complained that he and then Prime Minister Bettino Craxi had been stood up by two girls from the show "Drive In." "This means that we won't be having sex tonight. And if this is the way the year begins, we'll never have sex again."
But Berlusconi's prediction would not come true.
In April 2007, a paparazzo shot pictures of Berlusconi's summer house in Sardinia, where the old man was seen enjoying himself with five Velinas.
Another wiretapped telephone call, this time from the early summer of 2007, was broadcast on YouTube. In the conversation, Berlusconi asked the then director of the Rai Fiction public television station, Agostino Saccà, for a favor. Saccà said to Berlusconi: "You are the only one who has never asked me for anything ... except for women, once in a while, to improve the boss's mood," Berlusconi replied, before getting to the point. "I am trying to get a majority in the Senate," Berlusconi told Saccà, and promptly asked him to find a job for a starlet who was the girlfriend of a senator from the left with whom Berlusconi happened to be in negotiations.
A few months later, the government of then Prime Minister Romano Prodi fell when it lost its majority in the Senate. Antonio Di Pietro, a member of the opposition, said that Berlusconi, like a pimp, spent more time finding jobs for his girls than paying attention to the country's problems. "This one is good, that one is pretty, and that one has big tits," Di Pietro said, mimicking Berlusconi.
When the telephone conversation between Berlusconi and Saccà was posted on the Web site of the left-leaning weekly magazine L'Espresso, Berlusconi's response was merely to say that in order to succeed at Rai, "you have to prostitute yourself or be a member of the left." The right-wing tabloid Libero fired back: "Mussolini had his women, too. We need a prime minister, not a Trappist monk."
Il Cavaliere's bawdy ways haven't seemed to hurt him at the polls, and female voters have not exactly run screaming in the other direction, either. Berlusconi once described how, during an election campaign, women treated him like a living relic: "People pull at my jacket, and pregnant women ask me to place my hand on their stomach. Others ask me to put my hand over their eyes, because they don't see well."
Popular Italian talk-show host Roberto D'Agostino sees the commotion over Berlusconi's machismo as hypocrisy. "Everyone wants what Berlusconi has. You Germans don't get it. We are Latins, not Calvinists. Moralizing has no place in politics. For instance, everyone knew about (the former head of automaker Fiat) Gianni Agnelli's orgies, even his wife. But the two stayed together, just as Silvio and Veronica Berlusconi have stayed together. This is the sort of thing we admire."
Berlusconi's (second) wife, Veronica Lario, figured out how to lead her own life long ago, and she is adept at defending herself when it comes to the well-being of the children she shares with Berlusconi. In January 2007, the left-leaning daily La Repubblica published an open letter from Veronica to her Silvio, in which, for the first time, she complained about the "painful moments" of her married life and demanded "respect for the dignity of a woman."
The move was prompted by a comment Berlusconi had made about Mara Carfagna, who would later become minister for equal opportunity: "If I weren't already married, I would marry her immediately."
'Technically Almost Immortal'
Like his power, this statesman also wants to immortalize his body. He takes elixirs against aging, doesn't smoke and avoids meat. Recently, Berlusconi even cancelled an appointment with Günther Oettinger, the governor of the German state of Baden-Württemberg, because he was expected at a spa in Umbria for a full-body treatment based on the methods of Dr. Mességué, a well-known French herbalist. He portrays himself as an omnipresent workaholic who handles everything. "I am constantly working and I don't sleep more than two hours a night," he claims.
His personal doctor, Umberto Scapagnini, has already declared Berlusconi to be "technically almost immortal." According to Scapagnini, "his physique and his mind have already demonstrated superhuman strength. He is genetically extraordinary."
In other words, there is no reason Berlusconi could not serve as president for the rest of his life after the current legislative period ends in 2013. By then, he will have left his imprint on Italy for two decades. The country has been reflected in Berlusconi, even when he was not in power. Berlusconi set the agenda and defined the language and style of politics. Without him, there would be no system of two camps, no middle-class voting bloc and, presumably, no reformist left.
He has seen seven opposition leaders come and go. After the February resignation of Walter Veltroni, who was considered a promising competitor until recently, there are few opposing forces left.
Berlusconi, a completely non-religious (and divorced) billionaire, has even gained the Vatican's support. All it took were a few well-placed and well-timed statements against reproductive technology and assisted suicide.
"The Italians are afflicted by a strange desire for bondage," former President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi said recently. For lack of an alternative, Ciampi said, they would put up with anything, preferring to discuss the prime minister's starlets than his budget deficit. For British political scientist Colin Crouch, Berlusconi's Italy is a prime example of a "post-democratic society."
Perhaps this is true. Ultimately, democracy has nothing to do with expertise but with consensus. And hardly any other European politician is a more efficient consensus machine than this outrageous popular man, complete with his facelifts and permanent smile.
In Germany, Berlusconi's policies are usually perceived as utter nonsense. After all, this is a man who, at a summit meeting in Trieste, hid behind a column and startled German Chancellor Angela Merkel when he called out "boo!"
His critics forget that Berlusconi, as a good populist, has instructed his ministers to deal with precisely those plagues that are often cited as examples of typical ineptitude in Italy, a country Germany's Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin called a "stinky boot" -- filled with unruly strikes, uncollected garbage in Naples, street prostitution, the Byzantine frenzy of regulation, centralism, do-nothing civil servants and a sluggish judicial system. His approach is popular, especially when everyone knows how difficult it is to reform a country in which regulations are commonly treated as an insult to one's intelligence.
Despite his vast power in the media, Berlusconi has been voted out of office twice. Each time, the left had the opportunity to do things better, and each time it failed. Berlusconi was not reelected a year ago because voters watch too much television, but because they are disillusioned. Berlusconi was the only candidate who stood a chance of assembling a majority capable of forming a government. In other words, he wasn't elected out of affection, but out of pragmatism and soberness. Political expediency was also part of the mix.
Berlusconi has captured this country, lost it and captured it again. He has betrayed it many a time, and he has seduced it time and again. There is probably only one woman he has ever really loved. There was only one woman for whom he consistently interrupted high-level talks, and only one woman whose pearls of wisdom he felt were worth repeating to Putin, Bush, Blair and even the pope: "La Mamma Rossa," his mother Rosella, who he adored more than anyone else, and who died last year and was mourned by half the nation.