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A Lonely Winter For Berlusconi


Turning to another story we're following, this one in Italy where earlier today a court effectively ended a corruption trial against former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi could have faced jail time if he'd been convicted of the charges, in this case, bribery. But that's not the end of the road for the flamboyant former prime minister. He still faces charges that he paid an underage teenager for sex. His friends say that the man who once totally dominated Italian politics is now increasingly isolated, lonely, and some say depressed, to be out of politics.

Last month, the writer Philip Delves Broughton managed to spend the day with Berlusconi at his apartment in Rome, and he wrote about it in the Atlantic. When he got there, Broughton found the larger-than-life politician dressed in a track suit.

PHILIP DELVES BROUGHTON: It's funny. When you see him on television, he always seems like one of these small, Napoleonic European leaders. And you meet him - he's big in the shoulders, he has the makeup on. He was wearing like a dark blue cashmere jogging suit. And the first thing you notice is that he's a very, very lively 76-year-old. He's sort of bouncing around. He's greeting everybody, he's telling jokes, and he's got a big smile on his face. He's not an old geezer, you know, who's sort of stuck in his ways, stuck in his house at the end of his career.

RAZ: And yet, there was something very Sunset Boulevard about your profile, almost like watching Gloria Swanson in that play. I mean, first thing, let's talk about the makeup. This is something you noticed right away. He wears a lot of makeup.

BROUGHTON: Yeah. He does all these things that lay himself open to ridicule. And it isn't particularly pretty. It's rather obvious. But as I said, his personality and his sort of exuberance makes up for it. You're going to meet this man, and all you've heard about him for the last few years is, you know, what a joke he is and how he's had these orgies with young women and he's disgraced Italy. And then you meet this character, and yes, he has the makeup, yes, he has the stacked heels, yes, he has the terrible hair implants, which are this funny color. But he sits down and he starts making you laugh.

I've met many, many politicians in my career as a journalist and foreign correspondent, and a vast majority of them are these dreary, pompous, self-inflated characters. And he is anything but that when you meet him. And part of it is this sort of comedic element about him.

RAZ: And yet, you describe somebody who is actually quite lonely. I mean, somebody who can't talk to many of his friends because of all these pending lawsuits against him. He's worried that his phones are tapped and that anything he says will be used in court against him. I mean...

BROUGHTON: Well, this is what everyone told me in advance. They said, you know, he's terribly lonely since he left office. And in 2008, his mother died, which is a huge event for anyone, but for an Italian man of a certain kind is a deep, deep trauma. He was very close to his mother. His sister died in 2009. In the same year, his wife left him, saying that she found his behavior, especially his - I think she used the word obsession with young women - sick and ill. And he was sort of abandoned.

He told me - he was very insistent on this all the way through because I had brought this up. I said, everyone in Rome tells me that you're lonely and depressed and wandering around here like some mad old king. And he said, no, I have my children. My daughter calls me twice a day the way my mother used to. But yes, you're right. He told me he can't tall on the phone because of his fear, his paranoia. And it seems justified given how much he's been tapped, the fears and the terrible things that have come out.

And I think many of his political allies have gone away. He's at the end of a rather glorious business career. He said he doesn't want to be a prime minister anymore. You do wonder, yes, all these bunga bunga parties, orgies, all these kinds of things that have been alleged. Many people around him told me, yes, they're a function of his loneliness.

RAZ: He is still the de facto head of his political party, right, which is still the largest political party in Italy.

BROUGHTON: In any normal (unintelligible), he's prime minister. You know, he came to power in 1993 with enormous excitement around him. He was this incredibly successful entrepreneur. You know, he was the richest man in Italy. He owned the most successful soccer team. And when he came in in 1993, it was the sense that here is the man Italy has been waiting for, the man who's going to shake Italy into the, you know, into the future, shed any kind of vestiges of its communist, socialist past and really bring in this modern air that - sort of the way Margaret Thatcher did with Britain. And he never did it.

And the question everyone keeps asking is why, why, why? Why 18 years on, he's - 19 years on, he's still in politics and he still hasn't done anything close to what people though the would.

RAZ: Who visits him?

BROUGHTON: Who goes to see him?

RAZ: Yeah. I mean, does he have visitors every day?

BROUGHTON: Yes. I think he does. I think he - when I was there interviewing him, a Tunisian movie producer came in to see him, and they were having dinner later. And I think he is close to his family. One of his daughters runs Fininvest, which is his large business operation. He has a close relationship with Vladimir Putin, which again, a lot of people look at and think, you know, what's going on there. But again, I think he is a man who, all his life, has been a deeply, deeply social man. He thrives on contact with other human beings. And I think the way he's been cut off and isolated in the past few weeks and months, I think, has been deeply wounding to him.

RAZ: That's writer Philip Delves Broughton. He wrote about his visit with former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for the Atlantic. Philip, thanks so much.

BROUGHTON: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.