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Berlusconi turns on the TV chutzpah

May 7, 2009

By Guy Dinmore in Rome

Published: May 7 2009

It is not every day that a European prime minister appears on primetime television to deny that he dates underage girls or is berated by a senior Vatican cardinal over his private life – but Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi appears to be riding out his latest storm.

An opinion poll commissioned by La Repubblica, a pro-opposition daily, showed the prime minister’s ratings almost unchanged yesterday at 66 per cent – perhaps the highest in Europe – and even 61 per cent of declared Catholic voters were supportive.

Veronica Lario, Mr Berlusconi’s wife and mother of their three children, has declared her intention to seek a divorce after learning that her husband attended the 18th birthday party of a Napolitan would-be starlet. She has expressed disgust at his promotion of glamorous TV personalities and models as election candidates.

After first declaring the matter a private affair, Mr Berlusconi, 72, went on the offensive on Tuesday night, and appeared for two hours on TV to give his side of the story to a favourite courtier.

He denied his wife’s claims that he had “frequented minors” and demanded she apologise. But he confirmed attending Noemi Letizia’s party in Milan, saying she was the daughter of an old friend and that he had made no secret of his visit.

Playing the innocent victim, the billionaire media tycoon accused his wife of falling into a trap laid by leftwing media.

Mr Berlusconi’s snap decision to be interviewed by Bruno Vespa on “Porta a Porta” followed a strongly worded criticism of his behaviour published yesterday morning on the front page of Avvenire, the voice of Italy’s Roman Catholic bishops.

In an article headlined “Politics and show business – a deadly embrace”, the bishops urged the prime minister to become “more sober, sombre and a mirror of the country’s soul”, and expressed concern about his “exuberance and weakness” for young actresses.

The unusually public attack stung Mr Berlusconi, who has courted the Vatican on anti-abortion issues.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of a Pontifical council, joined the criticism yesterday, declaring in a newspaper interview that “everybody, but above all a head of government”, should behave with “seriousness and sobriety”. He rebuked both spouses for airing their quarrels in public.

An acrimonious and public airing of dirty laundry is just what Mr Berlusconi’s political enemies hope for. Commentators savour the prospect that Ms Lario, a former actress who met Mr Berlusconi in 1980, will reveal his business secrets following what is likely to be a costly divorce settlement.

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