Berlusconi Apologizes to Wife After Public Chiding

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Italians enjoyed a real-life soap opera this week. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi saw fit to apologize to his wife after she wrote a letter to an Italian newspaper complaining about his sexist behavior.

REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

For a couple of days last week, Italians were treated to a true life reality show which made "Big Brother" look strictly junior varsity. The country's former prime minister and media mogul Silvio Berlusconi was forced to grovel publicly to his wife Veronica after she took him to task for his latest sexist remarks. NPR's Silvia Poggioli reports in this letter from Rome that Berlusconi's apology is just the latest blow to Italy's legendary Latin lovers.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: In their 27 years together, Veronica Berlusconi has rarely appeared in public next to her publicity-loving husband, and Italians knew very little about Berlusconi's second wife and mother of three of his five children - until last Wednesday. Commentators who usually pontificate on foreign policy crises, global warming and other apocalyptic scenarios filled reams of newsprint and chattered for hours on TV talk shows trying to analyze the social-political implications of Mrs. Berlusconi's letter. The country appeared divided between pro-Silvio and pro-Veronica factions. But in the end, there was general consensus that Silvio Berlusconi, the exuberant 70-year-old who has cultivated a Latin lover image, has been dealt a humiliating blow. Berlusconi, who has boasted about his hair transplant and face lifts, has a history of making remarks widely considered sexist.

He caused a diplomatic incident when he bragged about using his playboy skills with Finish president Tarja Halonen. He tried to convince U.S. businessmen to invest in Italy because we have beautiful secretaries. And after several starlets from his TV networks were elected on his Party's slate to parliament, Berlusconi joked about his right to the first night, the medieval custom that the lord of the manor would deflower newly wedded peasant brides.

But when he told one of those starlets turned MP at a recent party, if I weren't already married, I'd marry you right away, it was one sexist remark too many for his wife. And when she couldn't get him to apologize in private, she went public. In her letter to la Repubblica, the newspaper Berlusconi detests, she said the comments were damaging to her dignity and can't be reduced to jokes. She said the letter would show her two daughters that a woman should be able to protect her dignity in her relationships with men and show her son he must show respect for women.

After consulting his closest aides, Berlusconi issued a syrupy press release. He said he treasures his wife's dignity in his heart and apologized for his odd thoughtless quips. One commentator observed that Veronica Berlusconi, a former actress, has grown over the years into a sophisticated and intellectually curious woman, while Silvio, she said, has remained essentially juvenile. In fact, several observers pointed out the Berlusconi can be heard speaking lovingly more often about his 96-year-old mother than about his wife.

This would make Berlusconi a mamone - a mama's boy - a growing syndrome in Italian society, as sons cling to apron strings and are indulged well into adulthood. More than half of Italian men between the age of 25 and 35 still live with mama. Veronica Berlusconi's letter struck a chord with Italian women. As one commentator said, she has become a feminist idol, even for women who are not feminists, who feel themselves avenged of the machismo and selfishness of their companions.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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