Michelle Obama and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy are adding new luster to the role of the 21st century First Lady with their style and smarts, they complement and sometimes even outshine their high-profile husbands. Other recent First Ladies, such as Hillary Clinton and Argentina's Cristina Kirchner, have used their experiences in the halls of power to launch themselves into political offices of their own. But Veronica Lario, wife of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, has a different approach to this historically supporting part.
Lario, 52, a former B-movie actress, is usually invisible on the public stage, rarely seen by her husband's side and keeping mum on the political issues of the day. But when she does speak up, Lario exercises her First Lady powers in another way: rather than try to bump up her husband's poll numbers with public charm or policy advice, she cuts him down with character attacks that stick in a way Berlusconi's many public critics wish they could match.
Lario's latest public swipe took aim at her husband's plans to put politically inexperienced, easy-on-the-eyes young women on the ballot for the European Parliament elections in June. "Somebody has written that this is all for the entertainment of the emperor," she told the ANSA news service. "I agree. [It] is shameless trash, all in the name of power." Lario said that she and the three grown children she has with Berlusconi "are victims and not accomplices in this situation. We must bear it, and it causes us to suffer."
With a variety of residences inside and outside of Italy for Berlusconi and Lario to choose from, speculation has long swirled about whether they even still live together. What's clear is that Lario has been increasingly appalled by the public behavior of her 73-year-old billionaire husband, especially as it relates to women. And she refuses to suffer in silence.
Two years ago, Berlusconi was forced to publicly apologize after Lario wrote to the left-leaning La Repubblica newspaper complaining that her husband had damaged her reputation by swooning over TV star Mara Carfagna. "Forgive me, I beg you," Berlusconi wrote in an open letter to his wife. "And take this public show of my private pride giving in to your fury as an act of love." But the sincerity of his apology is another matter; the same Carfagna is now the Minister for Equal Opportunities. (See 10 things to do in Rome.)
This time, Berlusconi offered no apology for his plans to sex up Italy's image in the European Parliament. Instead, he told reporters on Wednesday that "La Signora" a distant and formal designation for his wife of 23 years had been manipulated by his enemies in the left-leaning media. Later in the day, he insisted that he would put the so-called showgirls, or young women, on his electoral list and personally accompany them on the campaign trail. Unlike other parties, Berlusconi said, his list would not include "smelly or badly dressed people." But by Thursday morning, he seemed to be backing down. Italian media were reporting that "Veronica Wins," citing sources that said Berlusconi had taken all but one of the young women off his election roster.
There's little doubt that this flare-up like Berlusconi's various romps on the world stage reinforces rather than changes the opinions that Italians have of him, whether they're fans or foes. Paradoxically, the potency of Lario's critiques only highlights the weakness of Italy's center-left opposition, the futility of magistrates' failed attempts to send Berlusconi to jail on corruption allegations and the desperation of graying allies waiting in vain for him to step aside. Berlusconi's grip on power, in other words, is stronger than ever. (Read "Why Berlusconi Loves a Good Gaffe.")
But Berlusconi has carefully almost surrealistically developed his image (for both the present and posterity) as a family man, even alongside his fame for virility. In her statement about the young women on the electoral list, Lario also slammed Berlusconi for recently attending the 18th birthday party of a buxom Naples blonde, after having missed the same celebration for all of their children. "The family is always an open nerve in Italy," says an opposition insider. Lario's comments "can be a heavy blow [for him]. At the very least, it can put him in a bad mood for a while." But surely the presence of the so-called showgirls would help cheer him up.