Why Berlusconi Loves a Good Gaffe

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Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi

Stand aside, Joe Biden. The American Vice President-elect may have made a few verbal missteps during the campaign, but the title of Prince of Gaffe belongs unassailably Silvio Berlusconi. Last week's election victory of Barack Obama and his garrulous running mate offered the Italian Prime Minister another chance to prove he is the world leader with the loosest lips. Speaking in Moscow alongside Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Berlusconi flashed a Cheshire-cat grin as he listed the reasons that Obama would be an effective leader: "He's young, handsome, and even has a good tan." (See pictures of Barack Obama's campaign behind the scenes.)

Berlusconi's apparent attempt at humor sparked charges of racism from political opponents, though most inside and outside Italy simply shook (or buried) their heads at the terrible timing — both historic and comedic — of such a remark in the wake of Obama's election as the first black U.S. President. As he's done before when accused of stepping out of line on the world stage, the 72-year-old billionaire lashed out at anyone who criticized him or called for an apology as "imbeciles," insisting his comment was meant to be "cute."

On Sunday, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, the Italian-born wife of the French President said Berlusconi's comment made her "pleased to have become French." Otherwise, however, the incident has predictably blown over within diplomatic circles. Berlusconi's aides said that he'd received a friendly call over the weekend from Obama, who was making the telephone rounds with world leaders, and that the Moscow comments were not mentioned. What could anyone say?

But the question lingers: What drives this gaffeur from Milan to continue an unbroken series of comments guaranteed to offend someone? What, for example, was the Italian Prime Minister thinking three years ago when he credited his own "playboy" powers for persuading Finland's female prime minister to agree that a key European Union agency be accorded to Italy? And what prompted him to compare a German member of the European Parliament to a Nazi prison guard, or to flash two fingers of the cuckold behind the head of the Spanish foreign minister during the family photo at a European summit in 2002.

Berlusconi's propensity for crossing the rhetorical line remains one of the central mysteries of his rise to become the most influential Italian politician of his generation. At times, one sees that the former real estate and media mogul is aching to be considered a leading statesman, with all the gravitas that entails. But all too often, it seems, he just can't resist another juvenile jape.

Interpretations among those in the know in Italy vary. Some say the man known as Il Cavaliere sees the world as his personal stage, simply letting it all hang out in public like other super-rich and powerful people do in private, convinced that his humor and Italian charm will win over the world. Others discern a calculation in his off-the-cuff quips: to divide his opponents, to keep allied pretenders to his throne off balance, and most of all to simply keep the spotlight on himself. By now, having been elected Prime Minister three times, most see his occasional outrageousness as an integral part of his leadership style, a kind of imperious one-man show.

"Sometimes it's spontaneous," says one insider from Italy's center-left opposition who admires Berlusconi's political agility even as he cringes at his public antics. "But sometimes I think he wakes up and says: 'I'm going to say something outlandish today. They'll see I'm still with it, that I don't miss a beat.'" (See pictures of Italy.)

As one of the last remaining loyal allies of George W. Bush, Berlusconi may worry that his influence could wane under an Obama presidency. And he may reason that the only response is to try to be the most 'simpatico'(likeable) ally on the world stage, even if it means a few jokes that backfire.

Antonio Amadori, an experiential psychologist and author of a book on Berlusconi, Mi Consenta (Allow Me), believes the Prime Minister is ultimately driven by a desire to "completely fill" the public consciousness. "Asking why he does things is like asking why Jerry Lewis does things," he says. "This is who he is. He is theatrical and believes in his own charisma and abilities to improvise."

In fact, Amadori wonders if the arrival of Obama, and the prospective of such a fascinating — and indeed young and handsome — figure on the world stage, has thrown Berlusconi for a loop. "Obama has an extraordinary physical and scenic presence. You can imagine Berlusconi's jealousy," he says.

Nevertheless, with his advancing age, toothy smiles, and acknowledged struggle with hair loss, Berlusconi still will have a counterpart to turn to in Washington: Vice President Joe Biden. They may both have to resort to gaffes to get a piece of the limelight.

See the gaffes of Campaign '08.

See TIME's Pictures of the Week.