Just Don't Call Him Duce

updated 05/23/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/23/1994 01:00AM

LAST MONTH, AFTER HIS FIRST DAY ON the job in the Italian Chamber of Deputies in Rome, newly elected Silvio Berlusconi unburdened himself to the press. "Will I always have to live this kind of life?" he complained playfully. "I have never done so little in my life."

For Berlusconi, who last week was sworn in as Italy's 54th prime minister in 49 years, it was a well-aimed shot at his legislative colleagues. But there was also considerable truth in his barb—for the man is nothing if not a doer. At 57, Berlusconi—who has been called Italy's Ross Perot—has amassed a $7 billion fortune. His three national TV channels draw in 45% of the Italian viewing audience. He also owns the country's largest publishing house (which includes Panorama, Italy's leading newsmagazine) and biggest media-buying agency. Though Berlusconi has temporarily put the management of these enterprises in other hands, he has refused to sell them. "It's as if the President of the United States controlled CNN, ABC, The New York Times and several newsmagazines," says Franco Bassanini, a left-wing member of Italy's Parliament.

That's not the only reason the new PM makes many Europeans nervous. He began his campaign almost four months ago, at the height of a burgeoning bribery and corruption scandal that has ensnared thousands of Italy's top industrial and political leaders and paved the way for a powerful newcomer like Berlusconi. To a dismayed electorate, worn down by the so-called Clean Hands investigation and a recession, he promised to deliver lower taxes and a million new jobs. He also blamed the scandal and inefficiencies of the bureaucratic welfare state on the nearly moribund Communist party. Simultaneously, Berlusconi allied his party, Forza Italia, with a mixed bag of right-wingers—including the neo-fascist National Alliance, whose leader, Gianfranco Fini, recently described Benito Mussolini as "the greatest statesman of the century." Notes an alarmed Bassanini: "Berlusconi has brought neo-fascism to power for the first time in Italy." Yet Berlusconi, who has appointed five neo-fascists to his Cabinet, denies he is anything but a centrist. "I challenge anyone to find one single newspaper page or one television transmission that in any way makes someone think that my ideological view is close to fascism," he has said. And in fact Italians may consider Berlusconi's unsavory bedfellows less significant than his record of personal accomplishment in a country that deeply admires the industrial aristocracy.

Berlusconi's entrepreneurship was evident early on. One of three children of a Milanese banker and his wife, Berlusconi was charging admission to puppet shows by age 5. Later he worked odd jobs, including one singing on cruise ships, to pay his way through college. After earning a law degree in 1961, Berlusconi got a loan to buy property and build housing complexes near Milan. Throughout the '70s and '80s he devoured media properties and Standa, Italy's largest chain of retail stores. While usually polite, in business dealings he can be "extremely dangerous when he knows he is right and people are playing with his patience," says filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli. Zeffirelli once successfully sued Berlusconi over a business dispute, but now the two are friends and fellow parliamentarians in Berlusconi's party.

Perhaps Berlusconi's political ace was his ownership of A.C. Milan, the best soccer team in a soccer-mad country. A.C. Milan has won Italy's national championship for three consecutive years and has also taken home numerous European and international championships. Jokes A.C. Milan team manager Silvano Romaccioni: "If Berlusconi does 55 percent of what he's done for soccer for Italy, all our problems will be solved."

Berlusconi reportedly has another favorite sport: women. According to biographer Giovanni Ruggeri, he is an inveterate ladies' man. "He has a soft spot for showy and, above all, provocative women," writes Ruggeri. In 1980, while still married to his first wife, Carla Dall' Oglio (with whom he has two grown children), Berlusconi was smitten by sultry actress Veronica Lario, then 25, whom he saw performing topless in a Milan theater. Their subsequent affair led to three out-of-wedlock children, Berlusconi's divorce from Carla and his marriage to Veronica in 1990. Still, Berlusconi is considered a family man—at least by local standards. He keeps two lavish villas near Milan, one for his two grown children and another for his second family. Veronica, a professed homebody, is her husband's biggest fan and may have the most accurate explanation for Berlusconi's sudden political success. "This...is not a victory for the right. It is a victory for the man. People don't believe in parties anymore," she has said. "They want men of quality."

JUDITH NEWMAN
GABRIELLE SAVERI in Rome

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