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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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But there the similarities pretty much stop. For instance, as long-winded as Obama can be, it is difficult to imagine him delivering the answer Vendola proffered when asked whether Italy would, under a government led by him, maintain current troop levels in Afghanistan.

"Let me make a brief detour," Vendola began. He then talked for a bit about the threat of Islamic fundamentalism, suggesting that the expansion of Europe to include Turkey and the Balkans would serve as an antidote to extremism. He blamed "our nearsightedness" but said that Europe could reverse the problem by resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, which, he said, had "an extremely strong link to Afghanistan." He said that Europe should defend Israel's right to security, yet at the same time be empathetic to the Palestinians right of return. "We have to stop dividing ourselves between pro-Israel or pro-Palestine," he said. "We have to become pro-peace."

When, minutes later, Vendola finally arrived in Afghanistan, he said his position depended on whether Italian paramilitary officers have trained Afghan police to keep the peace or fight the Taliban. "My prescription is this," he said: "There is no need to flee from Afghanistan; we need to flee from the war."

Vendola's idiom - part university professor, part rabble-rouser, part abstract poet - distinguishes him from the predictable rhetoric of Italian politicians. But sometimes even he has a tough time following his train of thought.

"I built myself as a populist anti-populist," he said at one point in the interview. "I'm not like the character of Samuel Beckett, who lives waiting for Godot. The left is always waiting for someone. In the end, it's the last part of the communist mentality in the left, always awaiting an unknown factor to save them, ummmm. What was I talking about?"

When Vendola abruptly stops speaking to say things like "I lost the thread," it's not always because he is confused. Sometimes it's hard to retrace the remarkably winding road that has brought him to the precipice of power.

Born in Terlizzi, a small community not far from the Apulian capital of Bari, Nicola Vendola grew up in a family of modest means. His father, one of 11 children, volunteered for fascist dictator Benito Mussolini as a teenager, but then, according to family lore, became a communist after reading John Steinbeck. At night his mother, one of nine children, knit and his father, by then a postman and the head of the local communist chapter, read Vendola and his three siblings Richard Wright's "Black Boy," Anne Frank's "The Diary of a Young Girl" and the letters of Italian resistance fighters languishing on death row. After those bedtime stories, Vendola said, his communist father forced the children to say their prayers.

As a child, Vendola said he stood apart. He was no good at sports. And the preferred pastimes of local kids - feeding firecrackers to lizards or kicking cats - didn't sit well with him. In school, he idolized Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi, and he claims that "fascist kids" beat him up for bringing their "subversive texts" to school.

At 14, he enrolled in the communist party, then a force against organized crime in the south. He read the communist papers to laborers after school, but also devoured the local literature, especially the poems of Pier Paolo Pasolini, on whose work Vendola wrote his college thesis. Besides the verse of Pasolini, himself gay, and a popular magazine's cover story about homosexuality that Vendola had stashed, at age 17, under a pile of books, there was little comfort. Growing up gay in a socially conservative stronghold of southern Italy was not easy.

"I had fear of dying," Vendola said. "I was a classic mama's boy, and suddenly I became a problem."

In a rare moment of understatement, Vendola said his parents reacted "not well" to his coming out. The breakthrough came, he said, decades later, when, in 2000, he addressed thousands of gay demonstrators at the World Pride march in Rome. After his speech, he received a call from his mother.

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