Master of Gaffes: Former PM Berlusconi

Italian leader claims his Latin is good enough for talk with Julius Caesar.

November 6, 2008, 12:31 PM

LONDON, April 10, 2008 — -- Among the many boasts of Italy's former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is a fluency in Latin so complete that he could hold a lunchtime conversation with Rome's ancient ruler Julius Ceasar.

Or so he claims.

In an interview with Italian radio RTL, the 71-year-old tycoon, who is running for a third term as prime minister next week, recalled his school days when he was so proficient in Latin that he was often chosen to speak with illustrious guests, including a few cardinals.

This is the same Berlusconi who once reportedly said that "the founders of Rome were Romulus and Remulus," misnaming the legendary twins, Romulus and Remus, who founded the city.

For 10 years, Berlusconi's boasts and verbal fumbles have made headlines in Italy.

Not sated by the publicity he generated, Berlusconi once sent his biography, in the form of a glossy magazine, to every single family in Italy.

Roberto Benigni, the Oscar-winning actor and director of "La Vita è Bella" (Life Is Beautiful), once said: "[Berlusconi] is someone who always wants to be in on the act. He wants to be everywhere. He wants to be the star. There is a meeting, he talks. He goes to a wedding, he wants to be the bridegroom. He goes to a funeral, he wants to be the deceased."

Many surmised that his popularity had more to do with his extravagant remarks, well-known for disrupting the earnest protocols of office, than with his political deeds.

At the start of Italy's EU presidency in July 2003, he told Martin Schulz, German member of the European Parliament, "I know that in Italy there is a man producing a film on Nazi concentration camps. I shall put you forward for the role of Kapo [guard chosen from among the prisoners]. You would be perfect."

During his 2006 electoral campaign, the leader of Italy's right-wing coalition said of left-wing voters, "I trust the intelligence of the Italian people too much to think that there are so many pricks around who would vote against their own best interests."

On the television show "Tg2 Punto di Vista" when a young woman asked him how she was supposed to get a mortgage or start a family without a permanent job, Berlusconi answered, "You should perhaps look to marry a millionaire, like my son, or someone who doesn't have such problems."

"Berlusconi is a serial seducer," Beppe Severgnini, author of "La Bella Figura, a Field Guide to the Italian Mind," and a columnist for Corriere della Sera, a major Italian newspaper, told ABC News.

"He is a worker among workers, and a peasant among peasants," Severgnini continued. "He is just like many average Italians. He jokes, he boasts, he speaks about women all the time. In many Italian typical environments there is someone like him. In every local café you'll meet someone like that."

"He is like an average Italian man but multiplied by five," he said.

And just like many average Italian men, women and sex are among his favorite topics.

At the New York stock exchange he promoted his country saying, "Italy is now a great country to invest in. … Today we have fewer communists and those who are still there deny having been one. Another reason to invest in Italy is that we have beautiful secretaries … superb girls."

At the Brussels summit at the end of Italy's EU presidency in December 2003, he turned to four-times-married German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and suggested: "Let's talk about football and women, Gerhard. Why don't you start?"

But according to experts, Berlusconi's jokes and excessive language are turning into a broken record. They are losing their disruptive and innovative function because they weren't turned into action.

This time Berlusconi is running against Walter Veltroni, the 52-year-old former mayor of Rome.

Veltroni, the left-wing coalition candidate, is not only younger, but he is using a campaign strategy that advocates change and speaks about people's everyday problems.

Conchita De Gregorio, a journalist for major Italian newspaper La Repubblica, argued in an interview with ABC News that "Veltroni's language is more authentic. It is true that Berlusconi broke with the traditional political language. Until Prodi [the former Italian prime minister] the left wing was considered aloof and boring. The left-wing candidate is giving it a new modern touch."

Franco Pavoncello, president of John Cabot University in Rome, told ABC News, "When Berlusconi came to power in 1994 he convinced his electors he was the right one because he was an anti-political figure, breaking with the tradition of the old-fashioned party system. He introduced himself as the new guy, more practical, more modern. His language was simple and understandable, even funny but then his old language hasn't been actually realized and it has become an empty slogan."

Berlusconi, however, doesn't represent the whole country, according to Corrado Augias, a journalist from La Repubblica.

In an interview with ABC News, Augias said, "It is like saying that a big democracy such as the United States, the country of Jefferson, Lincoln and Kennedy, is fully represented by a man like [George] Bush. Berlusconi in Italy is more or less the same anomaly, maybe we are less fortunate."

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