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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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" 'It's a shame we are old and couldn't come. You know, your dad was saying, maybe we should ask your forgiveness,' " Vendola recalled her saying. "I don't think I ever cried like that in my life. I think I cried for a couple of days."

Vendola does not see his sexuality as an impediment to his national ambitions in the home of the Holy See, especially since the church is increasingly vocal about Berlusconi's alleged sins of the flesh. Vendola argued that, in Italy, Catholicism is more cultural than religious. When everyone is nominally Catholic, there is a lot more flexibility and acceptance.

"I have a lot of nuns among my fans," he insisted. "In Italy there are parishes that distribute my discourses."

Vendola has played an active role in Italy's largest gay advocacy group, but his interests are not restricted to identity politics. He has sought to expose the exploitation of immigrant communities by drug dealers and infiltrated a mental hospital to shine light on the poor treatment of the mentally ill. After his election to Parliament in 1992, he went on peace missions in rebel-controlled territories of Colombia and Mexico. He joined delegations to Bosnia and Tajikistan, and late last year met in California with then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

As he explained his global missions, Vendola's press aide looked up from his BlackBerry to note that Berlusconi had survived the confidence vote in the Senate, and that the decisive vote in the lower house of parliament would soon begin.

Was Vendola ready for his appointment with history?

"At a certain point, power touched me," Vendola said. "And I lived it like a calling. At the beginning it was almost mystical. It was a responsibility that kept me from sleeping. Why me?"

At the foot of the Via del Tritone, police erected barricades to protect the government from thousands of violent protesters who had descended upon Rome. Vendola, his press aide and body guard arrived and the police parted. As he crossed the Via del Corso, an orbiting scrum of journalists and cameramen clustered around him.

"The worst of Italy is inside that building," Vendola said outside the prime minister's palace. "And the best of Italy is outside."

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