What's a swinging Prime Minister to do? Two weeks after Italy's Silvio Berlusconi silenced a storm of accusations about his private life with his statesman-like hosting of the G-8 summit in earthquake-stricken L'Aquila, doubts about his suitability for office refuse to die. On Monday, audiotapes surfaced of a high-priced call girl's alleged conservations with Berlusconi and a Bari businessman accused by Italian prosecutors of pimping for the Prime Minister.
Published on the website of the opposition weekly L'Espresso, the tapes apparently feature several conversations that Patrizia D'Addario says she secretly taped with Berlusconi before, during and after the night they spent together at the Prime Minister's private residence in Rome. Berlusconi has said he doesn't recall D'Addario and has denied ever paying for sex. Giampaolo Tarantini, the Bari entrepreneur under investigation for alleged prostitution and corruption, maintains his innocence, saying he brought attractive women to the Prime Minister's residences only to make a good impression.
Italians have feasted on the salacious details of the Prime Minister's alleged dalliances for weeks. But hearing what D'Addario and L'Espresso says is the voice of the 72-year-old Prime Minister may make it harder for the public to believe his version of events. A male voice, which sounds like Berlusconi, speaks intimately with the woman, telling her to wait in the "big bed" apparently a reference to a gift from Vladimir Putin while he goes to take a shower. When the same man calls D'Addario the next morning, she reports that she's losing her voice. "And we didn't scream," the man says. There is also a recording of the two people having breakfast, in which the man asks the woman her last name.
D'Addario, who identifies herself as a high-priced prostitute, made the recordings with her cell phone. She says she has handed magistrates the Berlusconi recordings, as well as recordings of calls with Tarantini, in which he advises her of how much she will be paid and the fact that Berlusconi doesn't use a condom. "You're not going as an escort, though, but as a friend of mine," Tarantini tells her.
After her night with the Prime Minister, D'Addario rings Tarantini to tell him that the envelope of money she had been expecting wasn't there. Not that the 42-year-old woman sounds angry. She remarks that the Prime Minister had promised to help her resolve a local building-permit problem and that he wanted to see her again. "He said he has a girlfriend who he wants to have lick me," D'Addario tells Tarantini over the phone on Nov. 5, according to the L'Espresso tapes. When the Bari businessman laughs, D'Addario swears that those were the Prime Minister's words. "(He was) very affectionate," she says of Berlusconi. "All night, we didn't sleep."
For now, Berlusconi is letting his lawyers do the talking. Niccolo Ghedini, who is the Prime Minister's longtime attorney and an Italian Member of Parliament, told the Ansa news agency that it was illegal to post the recordings, which in any case were "totally unlikely and a product of the imagination." Still, the Prime Minister must figure out how to definitively change the story line, even as most in Italy assume that more revelations are likely to emerge. Here are five ways Berlusconi can escape his bedroom:
Keep quiet: Berlusconi could have insisted from the get-go that his personal life is, well, personal. Yes, his wife accused him of frequenting "underage females" just before she filed for divorce in April. But by keeping absolutely mum, Berlusconi could signal that he won't be drawn into the tabloid frenzy. Then he has to hope that the story fades away.
Attack: Berlusconi has blamed L'Espresso and its sister newspaper La Repubblica of having a personal vendetta against him and has publicly told advertisers to deny business to the publications. Presenting himself as a victim of the press is an old tactic with an ironic twist, since the Prime Minister personally owns huge swaths of the Italian media. Still, it's becoming increasingly harder for Berlusconi to convince supporters that his opponents are simply making this all up.
Revel in it: "Italians like me as I am," Berlusconi stated a month ago. That's true. The Prime Minister has an incredible ability to embody certain values that Italians see in themselves. They also like that he defies what many see as the hypocritical moralizing of his opponents. Remember, Berlusconi is at his most powerful when he is at his most entertaining.
Repent: La Repubblica reports that Berlusconi may sell his palatial properties in Rome and Sardinia, where the alleged trysts took place. The Prime Minister has already said a chunk of his August vacation will be spent near the decidedly less glamorous L'Aquila, continuing efforts to rebuild the city (and his image) after the April earthquake. Some have even suggested that he may make a pilgrimage to the revered Italian saint Padre Pio as a way to respond to Catholic criticism of his behavior. Can you say Santo Silvio?
Quit: Though perhaps half of Italy would love to see him disappear from public life, this is one strategy few would bet on. At 72, the flamboyant billionaire world leader still seems convinced that he can be both a flamboyant billionaire and a world leader.