Sex, Religion & Politics; Ahead of His Visit to the White House, Italy's Prime Minister Explains Some Nutty Rumors to NEWSWEEK

By Dickey, Christopher | Newsweek, March 6, 2006 | Go to article overview

Sex, Religion & Politics; Ahead of His Visit to the White House, Italy's Prime Minister Explains Some Nutty Rumors to NEWSWEEK


Dickey, Christopher, Newsweek


Byline: Christopher Dickey (With Jacopo Barigazzi and Barbie Nadeau in Rome)

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, 69, is one of President George W. Bush's most faithful--and flamboyant--friends in Europe. And Berlusconi's not the only one to say that. Last time the Italian leader came to Washington, in October, Bush made a point of calling him "my friend" at a photo op, "because it seems like we see each other a lot." Bush appreciated Berlusconi's "advice and counsel," he said, thanking "Silvio" for his "strong commitment to the freedom of people in Afghanistan and in Iraq." When Europe split over the 2003 invasion, Berlusconi sided with the United States, and he was one of the most willing members of the coalition sending in troops after the fall of Baghdad.

But as Berlusconi returns to Washington this week, his advice--given in an interview with NEWSWEEK--might not be so welcome: let Russian President Vladimir Putin take the lead negotiating with Hamas in the Palestinian territories, and set a timetable to get out of Iraq. Berlusconi, a self-made billionaire and media magnate, will be bringing a lot of political baggage to the States. He's in a fierce fight for re-election in April. His cabinet seems out of control. One member was forced to resign after taunting Muslims with a Muhammad cartoon T shirt, provoking Libyan riots that cost 14 lives. Berlusconi is dogged by corruption scandals, and headlines about outrageous egotism. Is there another world leader who would be reported comparing himself to Napoleon, Winston Churchill and Jesus Christ?

Berlusconi openly despises the Italian press, mistrusts foreign journalists, and yet--always full of surprises--he spent 90 minutes last week chatting with correspondents from NEWSWEEK. Over cappuccinos in Rome's spectacular 17th-century Palazzo Grazioli, where he chooses to live, work and pay the rent himself, his vanities were visible up close and personal: transplanted hair and what looked like Pancake makeup. Quintessentially Latin, Berlusconi's style is nothing like Bush's laconic folksiness. But there are common threads--not least the proselytizing for democracy and the vilification of doubters.

Did he really compare himself to Christ? "It's not true. Absolutely not true," he said. He'd been telling people he was tired at a fund-raiser, and called himself "povero Cristo." "You see, we say in Italian 'poor Christ,' when we mean 'poor fellow.' I stopped myself. I smiled. I said, 'Mamma mia, now they're going to say that I compare myself to Jesus Christ! …

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