Italy: Has Berlusconi finally gone too far?

The wife of the 73-year-old Italian prime minister touched off a scandal when she revealed her husband's relationship with an 18-year-old aspiring model.

“The most distasteful aspect of Silvio Berlusconi’s behavior is not that he is a chauvinist buffoon,” said the London Times in an editorial. It’s that he can’t take the heat his own bad behavior generates. The 73-year-old Italian prime minister certainly makes a fool of himself when he “cavorts with women more than 50 years younger.” And he has apparently destroyed his marriage to Veronica Lario, who touched off the current scandal by revealing her husband’s relationship with aspiring model Noemi Letizia, who only recently turned 18. But what’s even more disturbing is Berlusconi’s reaction to this sordid affair. When reporters question him about these matters, Berlusconi responds by threatening them with legal retribution. Last week, he even obtained an injunction against a photographer who was going to release photos that reportedly showed bikini-clad and topless girls at his villa. Has the man no shame?

One can’t help but think of Bill Clinton, nearly brought down by a dalliance with an intern, said Mario Ajello in Rome’s Il Messagero. We even have plenty of people “playing the role of Hillary,” crying that there is “a vast conspiracy” trying to destroy the leader. One of Berlusconi’s political aides, Daniela Santanchè, is pointing the finger at Berlusconi’s soon-to-be-ex-wife. Santanchè claims that Lario had a longtime affair with her bodyguard and is simply trying to smear Berlusconi to excuse her own infidelity. And after Noemi Letizia’s ex-boyfriend disputed Berlusconi’s claim that he was an old friend of Letizia’s family, the Berlusconi-owned Il Giornale newspaper launched a vicious attack on him, claiming the youth had made up the story for money.

The all-out effort to squash this story shows Berlusconi’s true, ruthless nature, said Giuseppe d’Avanzo in Rome’s La Repubblica. All those stories alleging a conspiracy against him have appeared in newspapers and on TV stations that are part of his media empire. He “knows that to destroy the reality that threatens him he must destroy—swiftly and as completely as possible—all those who are testifying against him.” To accomplish that, he is “abusing his power” both as prime minister and as a media magnate. This newspaper, which Berlusconi does not own, has documented how Berlusconi leaned on Noemi’s parents to force them to “confirm the fairy tale of a 10-year friendship with him.” Is there anyone left in Italy who still believes there is an innocent explanation for this scandal? “This is the story of a violent abuse of power, and therefore an issue that shakes our very democracy.”

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Most Italians simply don’t see it that way, said Rosemary Righter in the London Sunday Times. The leader of the opposition Democratic Party “tried a knockout punch” by asking Italians, “Would you want your children to be brought up by this man?” But it backfired. “Italians do not care to be preached at.” In a poll, 72 percent said that, Berlusconi’s antics notwithstanding, they wouldn’t mind having him raise their kids. They admire him because, while he is rich, he is not a snob and “doesn’t talk down to them.” Above all, he gets things done: cleaning up the perennial garbage crisis in Naples, abolishing property taxes, delivering timely aid to earthquake victims. Next week, we’ll see whether Italians again have forgiven him his peccadilloes. Berlusconi is running for European Parliament. It’s a stunt: He won’t actually take the seat; he just wants to see if Italians will support him. Don’t bet against him.

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