The embattled Italian Prime Minister summoned Boris Johnson and Nicholas Farrell to his Sardinian retreat, and accorded them an insight into his success
1 t is twilight in Sardinia. The sun has vanished behind the beetling crags. The crickets have momentarily stopped. The machine-gun-toting guards face out into the maquis of myrtle and olive, and the richest man in Europe is gripping me by the upper arm. His voice is excited. 'Look' he says, pointing his flashlight. 'Look at the strength of that tree.' It is indeed a suggestive sight.
An olive of seemingly Jurassic antiquity has grown from a crack in the rock, and like some patient wooden python it has split the huge grey boulder in two. 'Extraordinary,' I murmur. My host and I stand lost in awe at olive power. If Silvio Berlusconi, 67, Italian Prime Minister, is secretly hoping that a metaphor will form in my head, he is not disappointed.
What does it show, this outrageous olive, but the force which through the green fuse drives Berlusconi himself? And what does it stand for, this colossal cracked stone? You could try the Italian political establishment; or the European liberal elite; or just civilised Western opinion: all things which Silvio has scandalised and divided. Only last week the Swedish foreign minister, Anna Lindh, anathematised not just Berlusconi, but Italy itself.
Under the government of Forza Italia, she claimed, Italy could no longer be said to be part of Western European tradition or share its values. You may think that a flaming cheek, given that Europe's founding text is the Treaty of Rome. Where was Sweden, hey, at the 1955 Conference of Messina? You may find, like me, that at the sight of Berlusconi being monstered by Anna Lindh, your sword instinctively flies from its scabbard in his defence. But it was the attack by the Economist newspaper that, 1 suspect, got in among Berlusconi and his team, not least because it is read in — or lies inert on the coffee tables of – American boardrooms.
Twice now, this distinguished paper (motto: the wit to be dull) has given Silvio a frenzied kicking. It has said that he is not fit to govern Italy, and in a recent edition it laid 28 charges against him and said that not only was he unfit to govern Italy, he was also unfit to be president of the EU — an office he holds until December. It is the Economist attack which may have contributed to the presence of The Spectator here amid the wattle and rosemary of his 170acre Costa Smeralda estate, Nick Farrell, our Italy correspondent and biographer of Mussolini, has flown in from Predappio. I have been summoned from the other side of the island where, coincidentally, the Johnson family has also been staying in infinitely less splendid accommodation.
When Farrell and I meet for a tactics talk in a Porto Rotondo bar, we decide that the charges must of course be raised with signor ii presiderae, as the Prime Minister is confusingly called. But we know that we are unlikely to reach a verdict on the key ques tions, relating as they do to the abortive 1985 sale of a state-owned biscuit company to Buitoni, the spaghetti kings. Let us leave those matters to the lawyers and the desiccated calculators of the Economist. We have a broader and higher purpose: that is, to establish whether or not we feel that Sig. Berlusconi is on the whole a force for good in Italy, Europe and the world.
For three hours we have been in his presence. We have sat at a table in his drawingroom, Berlusconi at the head, nipples showing through his white Marlon Brand° pyjama-suit, and from time to time that table has been pounded vigorously enough to shake the glass bibelots and naked female figurines that dot the room. We
have drunk pints of sweet iced tea, brought silently and unprompted, as he has outlined his robust, neo-conservative view of the world. At one stage, after about an hour, the Prime Minister has vanished into the kitchen himself, and caused the appearance of three plates of vanilla and pistachio icecream, as if to refuel his torrential loquacity. We have heard him extol Thatcher, praise Blair (I have never known us to disagree on anything), laud Bush and damn the Italian magistracy as 'anthropologically diverse from the rest of humanity'.
It has been, says Valentino, his charming interpreter, the most detailed and generous interview that the leader has ever given, and by 7 p.m. Farrell and I are feeling, frankly, a bit limp. But there is no stopping the balding, beaming, bouncing multi-billionaire. He had a brush with cancer a couple of years ago; his skin is a little sallow for a man who has spent August in Sardinia; he looks less Like a million dollars than a million lire. But he is the fizziest old dog you have ever seen. Tacciamo un giro,' he says, by which he means, let's go for a ride.
When Berlusconi takes the wheel of a golf buggy, he does not trundle: he prefers to whang it and weave it down the swept paths of his estate, like Niki Lauda on the Monza hairpin. And as his passengers sway like sea anenornes, he gestures at a landscape which is, of course, naturally lovely, with the sun setting and the Tyrrhenian sea turning from indigo to faded denim. But everywhere he sees signs of his own handiwork and everything seems somehow the product of his own imagination. 'There; he says, pointing to a bank of blue plumbago. 'This is the flower of Forza Italia. The flower doesn't know it, but I know it.'
Forza Italia! Come on, Italy! The very name, with its football-terrace echo, is enough to wrinkle the nostrils of Anna Lindh and the Euro-nomenklatura. Forza Italia was the movement he founded in 1994 with his $12 billion fortune, and with which he first seized the premiership, only to lose it when his right-wing allies ratted on him, and the lawyers closed in. He was indicted on various charges of bribery and corruption. He struggled on in opposition. But the forza was strong in Berlusconi and in 2001 he came storming back. From port to port went the Forza Italia cruise ship — not unlike the one on which the 17-year-old Berlusconi had sung — and adoring crowds were produced for the cameras. At a cost of $20 million he peppered 12 million Italian households with his magnificent, 128-page all-colour Berluscography, An Italian Life. In it they found a story of fantastic, volcanic. American self-propulsion; the early skill in Latin and Greek, a facility he hired for cash to less able pupils; the devoted friends who have remained with him as he expanded his empire, beginning with the town he built in 1960 in a swamp outside Milan which has 4,000 inhabitants and which seems from its photographs to be agreeable in a Milton Keynes-ish way.
They learnt of his first wife and how their feelings for each other turned from love to friendship' before he acquired his second wife, knock-out blonde soap-star Veronica Lario. There was news about his suits (Ferdinando Caraceni), his cook, his cancer and, above all, the testimony of his mother RoseIla. Silvio's mother said Silvio was a hell of a guy, and whatever Silvio's mother said, other mothers took very seriously. Studded on every page were his cheery chipmunk grin and his Disneyish nose. To every small Italian businessman he stood for optimism and confidence and an ability to get things done. And here, in the first stop of our wacky races golf-cart tour, is a lesson in his can-do approach.
One day Silvio came along and found they had flattened the trees, in a 50-metre radius, to make a helicopter pad. He didn't want a helicopter pad. He was devastated. He went to sleep on Easter night, wrestling with the problem. 'At a certain point I decided that out of each evil you must find a good thing. I thought I could create a labyrinth, and then I decided to make something which had never existed before — a museum of cacti!' We dismount and admire this bizarre amphitheatre in which an audience of 4,000 prickly customers, comprising 400 species from seven countries, looks down from circular terraces on to a beautiful blue pool facing out to the bay. It is cracked but somehow brilliant.
'This is the brain of my finance minister,' says Silvio, pointing to a thing looking like a vvrathful artichoke, 'ideas everywhere.' He caresses the powdery flanks of another plant to show its ingenious defence against climbing ants. 'And this,' he says, pointing to a villainous set of spines, 'is the mother-in-law's cushion. This rock came from Lanzarote!' Why did it come from Lanzarote? Was it really essential, this red pumice? Perhaps not: but it showed that Silvio could move mountains.
He has certainly moved Farrell, who is evincing signs of rapture. 'Bravo, Signor Presidente' says the biographer of Mussolini. Veramente bravo!'
Berlusconi waves aside our enthusiasm but cannot resist the moral. 'See,' he says, 'this is what the private sector can do! I did this! I did it in three months!' I did this: the boast of every alpha male. Thus the three-year-old to his doting mother; thus Agrippa on the frieze of the Pantheon.
The Italian population liked him for his energy and they handsomely returned him. In 2001 he achieved an unprecedented majority, commanding both houses of parliament. He had a huge opportunity to enact what he proclaimed was his vision: a Thatcherian tax-cutting reform of Italy. His enemies went into spasms of indignation and, in truth, one can see the cause of their unease. It is unsettling that one man should have such a concentration of commercial and political authority. It does make one queasy to think that this charming man is not only the biggest media magnate in Italy, owning Moncladori, the biggest publisher, AC Milan, the biggest football club, several newspapers and a huge chunk of Italian television — but is also Prime Minister.
We put these concerns to him and Berlusconi bats it all back in phrases honed with use. No, he didn't go into politics to protect his own commercial interests, as Enzo Biagi, a columnist, has alleged that he privately confessed. 'I couldn't work all my life in Italy with a communist, left-wing government,' he says. No, there is no conflict of interest. People can write what they like in his papers. 'I am the most liberal publisher in history.' And no, the Economist charges are old, footling, groundless, and the table incurs a good thudding as he iterates his defence.
It is quite the done thing, he protests, to pass a law exempting himself from prosecution for the term of his office. Chirac has done the same. But it was never our goal, in this interview, to establish the dodginess of his business practices. We were trying only to judge whether he was on balance a good thing. Our answer, when the trolleyride finally ends and we are sitting like a pair of oiled guillemots over a beer in Porto Rotondo, is an unambiguous yes.
It is hard not to be charmed by man who takes such an interest in cacti and who will crack jokes at important EU gatherings, not only about Nazi camp commandants but also about whether or not his wife is running off with someone else. There is something heroic about his style, something hilariously imperial — from the huge swimming pool he has created by flooding a basin in the Sardinian hills, to the four thalassotherapy pools he has sunk for Veronica, powered by computers more advanced than those used on the Moon shots.
It may or not be important that he claims never to have sacked any of his 46,000 employees. We scan closely the faces of his cook and a butler as they pass us in another golf cart and hail him matily. 'Where are you off to?' asks Berlusconi. 'We're off for a ride!' they say. Yes, they seem happy. His appeal, for me, is that he is like so many of the things he has brought to this Sardinian coast. He is a transplant.
Suddenly, after decades in which Italian politics was in thrall to a procession of gloomy, portentous, jargon-laden partitocrats, there appeared this influorescence of American gung-hoery. Yes, he may have been involved in questionable business practices; he may even yet be found Out and pay the price. For the time being, though, it seems reasonable to let him get on with his programme. He may fail. But then, of course — and this is the point that someone should write in block capitals, fold up and stuff in the mouth of Anna Lindh, Swedish foreign minister — he can be rejected by the Italian people.
She may not like it but he was democratically elected and can be removed by the very people Anna Lindh insults. If we are obliged to compare Silvio Berlusconi with Anna Lindh, and other bossy, high-taxing European politicians. I agree with Farrell: as the narrator says of Jay Gatsby, a man Berlusconi to some extent resembles, he is 'better than the whole damn lot of them'.