Thursday, September 16, 2004

Berlusconi Goes on Holiday

Letter From Sardinia: Il Cavaliere Goes on Holiday

September 20, 2004

By Mauro Suttora
Newsweek International

Yes, under his leadership Italy's public debt has soared to 1.5 trillion euros, the third largest in the world. Yes, he controls six TV channels, monopolizing 90 percent of Italian television. And no, he hasn't solved his various conflicts of interest: he doesn't want to give up his media empire and sees no reason why as prime minister he shouldn't meddle on its behalf. But whatever you think about his politics, Silvio Berlusconi is fun.

Just last month I was enjoying a cocktail in a cafe in Porto Cervo, the tony resort in Sardinia where he also holidays. Suddenly the whole town square erupted in shouts. "Berlusconi! Blair! Here they come!" Everybody rushed to a corner of the piazzetta, where the Italian and British prime ministers were walking, loosely protected by a very few bodyguards in spite of all the terrorism alerts. Berlusconi had this incredible white bandanna wrapped around his balding pate, looking like a weird cross between Janis Joplin and Steven Van Zandt. The guy is 68, and though reportedly multilifted, his face definitely shows his age. Yet he was so happy and smiling that the crowd broke into spontaneous applause.

Spontaneity: exactly what his so-serious political adversaries lack. As it happened, another guy in a bandanna was visiting Porto Cervo that day: Johnny Depp, star of "Pirates of the Caribbean." He didn't meet Berlusconi and Blair, even though he was hanging out just steps away at the fashionable Nikki Beach club. (Bad sign, when Italians borrow names from St-Tropez.) Half of Italy regards Berlusconi as a modern pirate, doing his dirty business. But to me he's got the swashbuckling appeal of Depp. Or maybe James Bond. Cruising off the Costa Smeralda one day, I noticed an immense scaffolding rising from the water. A friend explained that it was a "secret" port, being cut into the cliff below Berlusconi's immense villa. The better for clandestine arrivals, I imagine. Or getaways.

Berlusconi's "bandanna mystery" was headline news, of course. Turns out that Il Cavaliere was shielding a new hair transplant from the sun, not to mention prying eyes. Italy under Silvio lifts your spirit. You think you're living a perpetual joke. And he loves to joke. I didn't overhear his conversation with Tony and Cherie, but I'm sure he was full of corny stories. No doubt after dinner he treated them to one of his Neapolitan love songs, which he writes for his beautiful wife, Veronica.

The ex-actress was the talk of the town some months ago, as all Italy gossiped about her alleged (and again "secret") love affair with a handsome leftist philosopher. My God, the enemy (a communist) in bed! How did jovial Berlusconi respond? During a press conference with the Danish prime minister, he chirped: "I'll introduce you to my wife, poor woman." So he defused the rumors.

Veronica has just published her autobiography, second only to the pope's on Italy's best-seller list. She denies everything, except that her man (Silvio) talks in his sleep. But Berlusconi, like Ben Stiller in "Meet the Parents," has a mother-in-law too. The lady spent a miserable summer, confined in a little apartment in Porto Rotondo, far from Berlusconi's numerous Sardinian villas. (One for himself, one for his brother, one for his mother, others for his children.) Generous and grandiose with his guests, the doting Mr. B "forgot" to include her in his swishy Sardinian summering. He really is one of us.

If any problem clouded his horizon apart from dodging his community-property taxes it was the way locals retaliated by not cleaning the water-treatment facility near his villa. It stank. The Blairs noticed. What a show!

© 2004 Newsweek, Inc.