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I don't often build a diary about something I read about in the newspaper, but today I'm making an exception.  I hadn't known until now about Nichi (pronounced "Nicky") Vendola.  He has only been mentioned on this site seven times in the past year, by four commenters (and no diarists), all in the past nine days.  As the Washington Post reported last Wednesday (try here if that link doesn't work), he's the man that the polls say is best positioned to knock off the arrogant, pathetic, corrupt, kleptocratic, authoritarian, scandal-saturated Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi.

Oh, and Vendola is gay.  And ex-communist (though apparently, from what I can tell, still-socialist.)  And he's a devout Catholic.  And a poet and a professor.  And the popular and respected governor of the southern traditional district of Apulia (Puglia), the major city of which is Bari.

Berlusconi has started taking on Vendola, apparently thinking that he'd be a pushover.  Let's take a look at him.  I think that if Berlusconi thinks he'd be getting a Sharron Angle, he's going to be disappointed.

I'm not the first to mention Vendola here, and among the five people who have now done so, I suspect that I'm the least well-informed about him.  (Yet I'm the one writing the diary!  Fortune favors the bold -- or the procrastinators.)  I know less about him, for example, than prodigal, who paraphrased one of his comments about Italian parties, placing it in an American context, thusly:

The Republican party presents itself as the protector of great dreams -- American exceptionalism, the Christian tradition, success.  The Democratic party presents itself as a group of condominium board administrators fully prepared to argue for weeks about whether to steam-clean the lobby carpet in May.

I'm guessing that I (or, better, prodigal and I) now have your attention.

I don't think I know him as well as SneakySnu, a Koster resident of Rome who picked him as one of the politicians she most admires in my roll call diary of last week (still open for visitors, by the way)!

I'm quite sure I don't know him as well as do the WOID Team and NY brit expat, who in a thread starting here, plus this bit, discuss him in some detail.  (The promise a discussion of him here tomorrow afternoon; with this diary I hope to raise interest in, rather than pre-empt, their talk about a man who seems to be a fascinating subject -- and hope! -- in Italy.  My guess is that, without a boost, their story might garner fewer eyeballs.)

But I'm here to tell you what I read in the WaPo article.  So much to choose from, so few paragraphs!  I'll summarize a bit so it won't count against my fair use limit.

First, they call him "the White Obama," and he more or less embraces it.

I'm a sometime critic of the President, but I don't lose sight of the fact that even when I'm pissed at him about something (regarding habeas or government immunity or kowtowing the bankers or Afghanistan or maybe monkeying with Social Security, god forbid), for much of the rest of the world the mere fact of his existence here makes people swoon.  It seems so very, very improbable for the U.S. to have a black man as President, and it seems to inspire.

And so it is, from my vantage point, with Vendola.  Italy -- macho Italy -- could elect a gay man as its Prime Minister?  It doesn't seem possible.  In fact, it seems like I'm making it up.  Maybe you want to go read that WaPo article right now.

In case you don't, though, I'll continue.

His ascent from regional governor to national phenomenon has coincided with what increasingly looks like the decline of Berlusconi. The media mogul barely survived the Dec. 14 confidence vote, and in the past few weeks he has suffered the erosion of his governing coalition and the evaporation of his cherished immunity from prosecution. This week, Italian papers published wiretapped phone conversations connected to allegations that the 74-year-old paid for sex with multiple young women, including Karima El Mahroug, a teenage nightclub dancer nicknamed "Ruby Heartstealer."

Calling for Berlusconi's resignation is a time-honored tradition of the left-leaning Italian opposition. But if his government falls, Berlusconi is unlikely to simply pack it in. Arguably the most effective campaigner in Europe, the billionaire would surely demand early elections, a prospect that makes the established left quake, but makes Vendola, the only challenger whose charisma is comparable to Berlusconi's, eager for the next step.  "We are in the delivery room," said Vendola, who has a baroque speaking style. "I see in the belly of Italy the alternative creature ready to be born. And as an obstetrician, I want to deliver it."

He has formed the "Left Ecology Freedom" party.  He is lampooned by Italian television comedians for lisping.  He writes a column in Il Foglio the name of which rought translates as "Nichi, what the hell are you talking about?"  And Berlusconi seems to want to raise his profile as a possible opponent.  That was the thrust of Berlusconi's reply to people who questioned him about his rather sad pursuit of the teen dancer: "it's better to like beautiful girls than to be gay."

Vendola responded: "My thoughts were split 50-50. ... On the one hand, I thought it's the usual Berlusconi, that slimy bottom-feeder of small bourgeois culture, who tells anti-Semitic and homophobic jokes and affects a rampant masculinity to connect with what he imagines to be the Italian everyman, because he is the monstrous and extreme version of the Italian everyman."

On the other hand: well, if someone wants to knock you down, they may be afraid that you're riding too high.

While Berlusconi controls a major chunk of the nation's media, Vendola has taken to the Web. On Facebook, 362,603 people and counting have "liked" his page, the longest list of any politician in Europe. He is active on Twitter and produces a steady stream of podcasts and blog posts. His "There is a Better Italy" Web portal has promoted political and social clubs known as "Nichi's Workshops" around the country. In sun-drenched Apulia, which supplies Italy with 13 percent of its solar energy and nearly a quarter of its wind power, he has earned a reputation for good government. Land confiscated from the mob is now given directly to cooperative farms and youth centers. He has seized on issues outside his jurisdiction, offering, for example, to store some of the garbage overflowing on the streets of Naples.

(Be still, my fluttering heart!)

Vendola's criticism of the Italian Left is that it is too much like the American Left, to unrooted and unsure of itself.  "If it talked to a pregnant woman, its belly grew.  If it talked to a rabbi, its sideburns grew. If it talked to the church, it became a papist. If it talked to entrepreneurs, it became a businessman.  In the face of fear, which is Berlusconism, it did not propose hope."

There's more in the article, and I think I've used up my allotment of quotes.  Suffice it to say: this guy seems like he gets it.  He's one to watch.  I don't know who else might run against him from the Left -- WaPo says he's the only one who could match Berlusconi's unfortunately widely perceived charisma -- but I will say this: I like what I see of him so far.

So: I invite you to present your knowledge of Vendola and your analysis of Italian politics, if you have expertise, and to do what I did.  Go read an article that offers hope that the era of Berlusconi -- the Italian answer to Rupert Murdoch and Dick Cheney and Senators Ensign and Vitter -- will soon be finito, and that the Italian answer to Barney Frank, Jerry Brown, and Bernie Sanders will soon be vittorioso.

Buona fortuna, Governatore Vendola!

Originally posted to Doane Spills on Sat Jan 22, 2011 at 05:31 PM PST.

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