Sex, Religion & Politics

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!' "

What about his claim that he'd give up sex until after the elections? Berlusconi laughed, loving the question. "Absolutely the contrary," he said. So did that mean... he's having more sex? "No, no, no," said the prime minister, who is married to former actress Veronica Lario. A priest had asked him to make all the necessary sacrifices to win the election; Berlusconi had asked if that included chastity. "No, I'm not asking you to do that!" said the priest. But the press got it all wrong--again--saying he'd given up sex. "Naturally, many of my friends were concerned," Berlusconi told NEWSWEEK, "to the point that Putin called me and said that both he and Bush were very worried about me."

But, seriously folks, Berlusconi says these stories are proof of a left-wing media conspiracy. Never mind that as president he controls state-run television, and his holding company owns most of the private stations in the country. Most Italian journalists are leftists if not out-and-out communists, he says, and even those at his networks want to prove they're independent. "I have to work against all the media, which are all on the other side," Berlusconi said.

Berlusconi's theatrics subside when he talks about the Middle East. He suggests the Putin option is the most pragmatic way out of the impasse between a Hamas government and Western countries that have formally branded the organization terrorist. "I think this approach can be the road to starting negotiations," said Berlusconi. He also thinks it's common sense for the United States to do what Italy has done and set a timetable to get out of Iraq. "I think it is good for the Iraqis to be able to protect themselves."

Toward the end of the conversation Berlusconi was asked the inevitable question about corruption. Could it be that he's desperate for a second term because he's afraid of prosecution if he loses? No smile on this. He's beaten every court case so far, he said, and there have been dozens. "It is the biggest persecution of a politician ever carried out in any democracy in history."

"Like a poor Christ?" he was asked. Berlusconi clenched his jaw, then flashed a smile. "Sure--they tried to nail me to the cross. But there is nothing in my life I have to be ashamed of." At this point President Bush may, or may not, feel the same.