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Putting the boot to Berlusconi

THE THINKER: "I don't speak easy," Nichi Vendola says. "I speak difficult." (Jason Horowitz)
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Late last year, when news of his involvement with Ruby Heartstealer first broke, Berlusconi acquitted himself by telling a motorcycle industry show that "it's better to like beautiful girls than to be gay."

In a two-hour interview on the morning of the December confidence vote, Vendola described his reaction to the apparent slight.

"My thoughts were split 50-50," he said in the Apulia region's sleek white offices off Piazza Barberini, adorned with ancient remnants, modern art and numerous ashtrays. "On the one hand, I thought it's the usual Berlusconi, that slimy bottom-feeder of small bourgeois culture, who tells anti-Semitic and homophobic jokes and affects a rampant masculinity to connect with what he imagines to be the Italian everyman, because he is the monstrous and extreme version of the Italian everyman."

And that was only the half of it.

"On the other hand," he said, "I thought he chose me. It's a joke aimed at an antagonist."

Throughout the interview, Vendola depicted Berlusconi as a poison that had seeped into the Italian soil and now sought to undercut his grass-roots support. Berlusconi "monitors me," said Vendola. "He studies me as a phenomenon and studies my Web sites. Every single syllable I utter is X-rayed." A few minutes later, Vendola's iPhone rang, and he ecstatically told a friend on the other line that he suspected Berlusconi's minions of planting negative stories about him in the media.

"The assassins," he said. "They are doing investigations into the little kid I argued with in elementary school."

If Berlusconi haunts Vendola's thoughts, it is because he looms large over the imaginations of all Italians. During his 16 years of dominating the Italian political scene, Berlusconi has returned from the grave, escaped certain death, grown more hair, erased wrinkles and magically fortified himself against criminal investigations. Not unreasonably, the billionaire has, for Vendola, become a national bogeyman. He is everywhere and owns everything.

"Berlusconi is simultaneously a cause and effect," Vendola said. "He is a factory of customs and behaviors, of mentality. An image machine, but also the finished product."

And in the paranormal universe that Italian politics has become, it may take a deeply unorthodox challenger such as Vendola to beat him.

In 2005, Vendola stunned the opposition establishment and then the right-leaning power structure to win election as the governor of the socially conservative Apulia. In March, he comfortably won reelection and has since sought to raise his national profile.

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