Friday, May 29, 2009

Silvio being Silvio

Remo Casilli/Reuters - Much of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s success stems from his uncanny ability to read the national mood of Italians.

The Times (above) and the Journal (below) have stories about Silvio: Prime Minister’s Escapades Finally Raise Eyebrows and No 'Spice' in Berlusconi Ties

His smile and gestures are ever-present, but an 18 year-old?

AFP/Getty Images
-Noemi Letizia, a young aspiring model, posing in her parents' home in April with a photo signed by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and wearing the gold and diamond necklace offered by Mr. Berlusconi for her 18th birthday.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Thursday denied having a "spicy" relationship with an 18-year-old aspiring model, as he stepped in to quell a political and personal storm that has tested the media mogul's public-relations savvy.

A spicy relationship. Or a steamy one.

The prime minister has repeatedly denied anything untoward in his rapport with Ms. Letizia, who has posed in her underwear and said in a recent interview that she was a virgin. On Thursday, Mr. Berlusconi said he had “absolutely not” had “a relationship, let’s say steamy or more than steamy, with an under-age girl.”

When the wife of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi took to the front pages this month to announce that she wanted a divorce and accused him of dallying with very young women, it seemed like yet another storm that Italy’s most powerful man would easily weather. For years, Italy has winked at Mr. Berlusconi, where other nations might have glared.

But then things took a turn for the surreal.

First came a rare and inescapable torrent of speculation — in blogs, on television and radio, at dinner tables across Italy — about the nature and origins of his relationship with Noemi Letizia, a pretty blond aspiring model whose 18th birthday party he attended in Naples last month, and who has said she calls him Daddy. This was the party that caused Mr. Berlusconi’s wife to declare their marriage, one year older than Ms. Letizia, over.

Nice turn of a phrase: the marriage one year older than the pretty blond in question.

More recent are allegations, potentially more damaging, that Mr. Berlusconi, 72, invited Ms. Letizia and about 40 other girls, some like her at the time younger than 18, to spend New Year’s Eve at one of his villas in Sardinia.

40 all at once? Silvio is ambitious. What else he is, is the question.

On Thursday, Mr. Berlusconi raised the subject before a battery of photographers and a television camera that had gathered to follow a meeting in his office. "I've responded to the only question that everyone has a right to ask me: 'Mr. President, did you have relations, let's say spicy or more than spicy, with a minor?' The response is, 'Absolutely not,'" Mr. Berlusconi said. "On top of that, I swore on the heads of my children."

“I have sworn it on the life of my children,” he added. “If this were perjury, I would have to resign a minute later.”

Are those the children whose birthday parties he did not attend? There are different translations of the Italian word, as there were with steamy/spicy.

Mr. Berlusconi's response to questions surrounding Ms. Letizia hasn't been as nimble, some analysts say. "I've never seen him like this," says Alessandro Campi, a political scientist at the University of Perugia and director of right-wing think tank FareFuturo. "He hasn't been able to keep the situation under control."

In an interview with CNN, which was taped Saturday and aired Monday, Mr. Berlusconi pledged to publicly clear the air.

Also Monday, Naples daily Il Mattino published an interview with Mr. Letizia, recounting how he first shook hands with Mr. Berlusconi at a public event in 1990. Mr. Letizia said his relationship with Mr. Berlusconi deepened in 2001, when the prime minister sent a handwritten letter to the family consoling them over the death of their son in a car accident. Mr. Letizia, reached by phone, confirmed the contents of the interview but declined to elaborate.

1990? Nineteen years ago? She's 18. Even Silvio can't manage that.

And yet, Mr. Berlusconi still governs virtually unopposed. “The problem is simply that the Italians can’t imagine who could replace Berlusconi at the moment,” said Tim Parks, a novelist and commentator on Italy. “It’s too dangerous and too much effort to replace him. So it hardly matters how bad the scandal is.”

Or, as the right-wing politician Francesco Storace said in a recent radio interview, “People don’t vote for Berlusconi because he tells the truth; they vote for him because they like him.”

Pity poor Italy.

In what many see as a sign of Mr. Berlusconi’s grip on the levers of power in Italy and the Vatican, the Italian Bishops Conference this week essentially gave him a pass, or at least a no comment, calling for “adult behavior,” but saying that each person’s conduct was a matter “of individual conscience.”

Now, that is quite an interesting comment, coming from the Vatican. I wonder how the US Catholic church would react?

“Things are completely turned upside down,” said Gianluca Nicoletti, a commentator for Il Sole 24 Ore radio. “Those who always represented the family and faithful couples are happy to justify hanky-panky,” he said. While some on the left, “which always professed a belief in total sexual freedom, are now like inquisitors with their fingers wagging.”

This is better than fiction.

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