The man is nervous. He seems agitated, fanning his perspiring face with documents. As he talks, looking tired and irritable, he lacks his trademark smile. He seems to be waging an inner battle. On a screen above his head is a larger-than-life image of his wife Veronica. It makes him seem small.
When Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, nickname Il Cavaliere, appeared last week on Italy's almost-daily talk show "Porta a Porta" (Door to Door), he knew that he, the otherwise omnipotent politician, had strayed somewhat off course.
He'd made a mistake. It was not the mistake of cheating on his wife, and not even the blunder of having played the sugar daddy -- "Papi Silvio" -- to an 18-year-old blonde. In the land of opera and private confession, these are acts that will eventually be forgiven.
Instead, as Berlusconi knows, he's made a mistake that is unforgivable for a populist: He has carelessly ignored the people, paying no heed to the opinions of women, Catholics and his own, recently founded party, The People of Freedom (Il Popolo della Liberta, PdL). For the first time after months of wielding his power with seeming indifference, Berlusconi faces the possibility of losing popular support.
It is this prospect that drives him to endure the torment of appearing on the talk show and to fight for his image as if fighting for his survival. "This is the way I am; I cannot change my nature," he says, waiting for applause from the studio audience.
But will they clap?
The whole country is familiar with the details of Berlusconi's supposedly spontaneous, fleeting visit to a party to celebrate Noemi Letizia's 18th birthday. The event has become fodder for satirical TV shows and websites, and the key passages from an interview Letizia gave to a local paper are now recited in every bar. "He is like a second papa to me," she said. "He raised me. I have never gossiped about this strong friendship with Papi Silvio." Berlusconi, Letizia said in the interview, had been unfailing in his "attentiveness," even giving her a diamond on one occasion and a little gold chain on another.
For some, and certainly Veronica Lario-Berlusconi, Letizia's words probably evoked memories of a certain White House intern during the Clinton years. Is Noemi Letizia Il Cavaliere's Monica Lewinsky? "I worship him," she told her interviewer. "I keep him company. He calls me and tells me when he has a bit of time, and I go to him. I stay and I listen to him. That's what he wants me to do. Then we sing songs together." Including: "Mon amour, lalalala."
The implication is that anyone who could possibly think ill of Berlusconi's friendship with Letizia must be a scoundrel indeed. What could be more normal than an 18-year-old girl from Portici singing and joking around with the Italian prime minister?
The story of a 72-year-old prime minister at the pinnacle of his power and an 18-year-old girl from a Naples suburb has turned into a political affair. It reminded Veronica Lario-Berlusconi of "virgins sacrificing themselves to the dragon" to propitiate fate. It also prompted her to ask for a divorce, declaring that she could no longer be married to a man "who consorts with minors."
The opposition could hardly believe its good fortune.
Political Rift Through the Bedroom
Italy's most powerful man is on the defensive. Although the fatal rift in the Berlusconi marriage has not changed the balance of power in Italy, the country has grown even more polarized. The deep fracture between devout supporters and bitter foes of the billionaire politician suddenly runs through his own bedroom.
Veronica Lario is already being celebrated as an effective one-woman opposition. None of Berlusconi's political rivals has cornered him with nearly as much success as his wife. Domenico Delle Foglie of the Italian daily Corriere della Sera described the prime minister's appearance on "Porta a Porta" as "an unexpected sign of weakness."
The Vatican, otherwise anything but a detractor of Il Cavaliere, was not amused. Cardinal Walter Kasper, the German president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in the Roman Curia, said: "The prime minister's behavior seems strange, out of order to us." For Italy, the senior church official said, the scandal does not project "an inspiring image of power."
The criticism is almost surprising, given the peepshow-like tales of Berlusconi's sexual appetite that have circulated for years. One classic story relates to a wiretapped phone conversation between him and a special advisor, Marcello Dell'Utri, on New Year's Eve in 1986. After Berlusconi and then Prime Minister Bettino Craxi had been stood up by two showgirls, he complained: "This means we won't be having sex tonight. And if this is the way the year begins, we'll never have sex again."
More than 20 years later, another wiretapped telephone conversation became a hit on YouTube. In the conversation, Berlusconi asked Agostino Sacca, then head of Rai Fiction, an Italian public TV station, for a favor. "You are the only one who has never asked me for anything," Sacca replied, to which Berlusconi replied: "Except for women once in a while, to improve the boss' mood."
Before appointing Mara Carfagna, a former showgirl, to be Minister of Equal Opportunities in May 2008, Berlusconi raved: "If I wasn't already married, I would marry her immediately." The remark prompted comedian Sabina Guzzanti to say, "You can't appoint someone minister for equal opportunity simply because she is sucking your dick." Carfagna, a former Miss Italia contestant, sued Guzzanti for libel.
In almost any other European country, a prime minister like Berlusconi would hardly last 24 hours. "It's as if we constantly re-elected (German pop singer) Dieter Bohlen as chancellor," says Peter Berling, a German actor and author (The Children of the Grail) who has lived in Rome for a long time.
Showgirls in Politics
But Italy is different. The Italians, says Giovanni Sartori, "elected him because they are like him or because they want to be like him." The renowned political scientist recently published a volume of essays titled The Sultanate. According to Sartori, Berlusconi rules Italy like an Oriental potentate, "naming ministers as he sees fit, chasing away whoever he pleases, as if they were servants." Of course, a sultanate needs a harem, says Sartori. "In a psychological sense, the man is always more omnipotent when he can produce a harem."
Members of Berlusconi's party, the PdL, have started to complain about the pasha's personnel policies. In Deputy Prime Minister Gianfranco Fini's web magazine "Farefuturo," doubts have been expressed over whether female candidates whose political experience is as scant as the clothing they wear on TV should be put forward as candidates for European elections.
Showgirls in politics? Berlusconi's wife Veronica, deeply offended by the way a girl she has never met chatted about "Papa Silvio," called her husband's political appointments "shameless rubbish in the name of power."
Veronica Lario says she doesn't believe Letizia's interview was just an example of the girl's naiveté. Letizia has always dreamed of a career as a velina, or showgirl, and started posting alluring pictures of herself on Facebook at 16. As early as 2007 the prime minister's wife said in an interview that she had been considering divorce "for years." She was tired of the constant humiliation by her husband's excesses. One recent example: The prime minister, while visiting the scene of an earthquake in the central Italian town of L'Aquila, made an unmistakable offer to a local female politician, Lia Beltrami. "Can I fondle you?" he asked, perhaps unaware he was being filmed.
Veronica and Silvio Berlusconi live separate lives, he with his entourage at a villa in Arcore, near Milan, and she in nearby Macherio. The lawyers call it "divorce, Italian style" -- a de facto separation, but one that preserves the façade of marriage.
It worked until April 30, 2009, when Veronica Lario discovered nude photos of herself on the cover page of Libero, a newspaper that is certainly closer to her husband than she is.
'The Ungrateful Velina'
The photos were taken in March, 1980. At the time, the young actress Miriam Raffaella Bartolini -- stage name: Veronica Lario -- removed her blouse in a scene of the play "The Magnificent Cuckold," at the Manzoni Theater in Milan. Sitting in the audience was Berlusconi, an up-and-coming owner of a construction company. He was so impressed by the scene that he visited the actress in her dressing room. Later he obtained a divorce to marry Lario.
This image of Veronica's breasts disappeared from public view completely -- someone must have bought up all the negatives. But someone must have released them again recently, allowing Libero to publish the pictures under the headline: "Veronica, the Ungrateful Velina."
The situation grew serious. "I felt I was facing a firing squad," Lario told a friend. The next day "La Signora," as Berlusconi called her at the time, met with her attorney to prepare for a divorce.
The country is as delighted as it is divided over this War of the Roses. Critics accuse Lario of seeking to force her husband to his knees and negotiate better terms for the divorce. Berlusconi's fortune is estimated at €6-8 billion ($8-10.7 billion), a figure that inevitably puts the divorce on the business pages.
Lario, for her part, owns real estate and stock worth an estimated €30 million ($40 million). The couple has otherwise already agreed to a separation of property. In the event of a divorce, Lario would lose her right to a quarter of Berlusconi's assets. But the couple's children are a different story. Lario has long demanded that all five of Berlusconi's children be entitled to equal shares of the estate, which would give her three children a majority in the prime minister's media empire. Berlusconi currently has only the children from his first marriage installed in key positions. His son Piersilvio is a member of the board of the Mediaset Group, and his daughter Marina is chairwoman of Mondadori, Italy's largest publishing group.
"Veronica is a classic mamma, who defends her children and frets when they are not given the same treatment as the other children," says art collector Roberto D'Agostino, Rome's king of gossip.
'That's Just the Way I Am'
So far no one has given a logical explanation for what connects the most powerful man in Italy with Noemi Letizia's family. They're based in Portici, at the base of Mt. Vesuvius. Letizia's mother is said to have once been a velina at Canale 5, a Berlusconi TV station. This, in turn, has fueled paternity rumors. Could "Papi" be more than a nickname?
Berlusconi claims to have known Letizia's father, Benedetto, a Naples city employee, since the 1990s. According to Berlusconi, Benedetto Letizia called the prime minister to suggest political candidates, and promptly invited the prime minister to his daughter's birthday party. But why have local party officials never noticed her father as an activist, not to mention a close friend of Berlusconi? And why did the prime minister, on his way to a crisis meeting about Naples' garbage problems, happen to have a gold necklace in his jacket pocket? Berlusconi repels these questions the way he's repelled lawsuits.
"If there had been anything risqué, unclean, secret or hidden," Berlusconi said on "Porta a Porta," "would the prime minister of this country have been crazy enough to put himself in such a situation?"
A private film crew constantly follows Berlusconi around, recording his every step. But his "Big Brother" act is part of everyday life for him. He even showed up at Noemi Letizia's birthday party with eight limousines and his usual entourage. "That's just the way I am," he said, "and I won't let anyone take that away from me."
Chi, a tabloid owned by Berlusconi, published the most harmless of photos of the party. Skeptics wondered, in a country that habitually reaches for conspiracy theories, whether the photos were real or a product of Photoshop. The question will remain unanswered. Berlusconi is more powerful than ever, and what the Economist has called the "berlusconization" of Italy is now a historic fact. His party, the PdL, has a 20-percent lead in the polls over the Democratic Party. The government is more homogeneous than ever, while the opposition is hopelessly divided, after years in search of a left-liberal hero, an Obama.
Berlusconi may be the only European leader whose approval ratings have remained constant in the recession, despite the fact that Italy's gross domestic product is predicted to fall by up to 4.4 percent this year, as productivity drops even further and the professors at the universities grow older. The global financial storm has done as little damage to his approval ratings as to his fortune. For Berlusconi, 2009 started with a check for €159,335,953.92 (over $213 million) -- dividends from his shares in Mediaset.
His supporters point to the government's successes. The garbage crisis in Naples has been contained; the Campania Region's first waste incineration plant is up and running. Italy has seen reforms in the public sector and schools. The chronically overburdened judiciary will undergo reforms, as dubious as the motives may be. And even Berlusconi's rivals acknowledge the decisiveness he demonstrated in the wake of the earthquake in the Abruzzo Region.
None of this makes Berlusconi a reformer. His visions last until the next poll is taken. He devotes his attention to every acute crisis. He even took his cabinet with him to meet in Naples and in the L'Aquila earthquake region. He changes his convictions unabashedly, dancing on every stage and in every role, sometimes posing as an economic liberal and sometimes, as in the case of the national airline Alitalia, as a state capitalist. The end still sanctifies every political position, and Berlusconi's supreme end is always to promote his own power.
In his understanding of democracy, an opposition is unnecessary. "He does so much for the people," as Letizia confirmed in her interview. Who couldn't agree with that?
'My Turn to Talk'
With his dependable instinct for the mood of the people, and in the face of all prophecies of the European intelligentsia, this man has set the agenda south of the Alps for 15 years. That's unlikely to change in the near future, divorce or no divorce.
Berlusconi himself is the only person who can trip up Berlusconi. This explains the concern and hectic activity with which he sought to disentangle himself from the Noemi affair last week on every media program, starting with "Porta a Porta."
So -- will they clap? Of course, the studio audience claps. And it's obvious how Berlusconi soaks up the sound of applause, how it inflates him, even elevated as he is on four-centimeter heels. The program on "Porta a Porta" was subtitled: "Now it's my turn to talk," a surreal sentence for a potentate who never stops talking.
The polls at the end of the week showed only a slight drop in his approval ratings within the Catholic electorate. Two-thirds of voters still see no reason to file for political divorce. Unless there are more revelations, Berlusconi will soon be able to abandon the defensive, an unaccustomed role, and end the crisis "with class," as he said on Wednesday, beginning to regain to his old confidence.
Even the Vatican was able to breathe a sigh of relief. According to the Catholic Church, a divorcé can receive Communion as long as he isn't remarried. Papa Silvio, in other words, will likely continue to celebrate Communion with Papa Benedict.