HILL OF BEANS: Bologna & RAI Brussels

The other day in Brussels, at the tail end of a junket to Germany for American journalists, I got to meet (and steal a few pencils off the desk of) the European Commission President Romano Prodi. He may be the least political politician in Europe -- an economics professor who pretty much got dragged into the Italian political soap opera in 1995, when it looked like no one in Rome would be able to form a government. Unusually for a famous native of Bologna, Prodi's not a Communist.Unusually for a Christian Democrat, he's both a Christian and a Democrat. But what made Prodi a logical choice for Europe's presidency is that he seems constitutionally incapable of lying. This straight shooting is no small thing in a European Commission that's brazenly designed to function undemocratically. One of Prodi's predecessors on the commission, the Mitterrand protegee Edith Cresson, ran her office so crookedly that an investigation turned up research-and-development contracts for her dentist.Prodi, by contrast, is wide open. For example: Even though he's never been a socialist, his coalition was made up of left-wing reformists (with a few ex-Commies thrown in). So Prodi always gets lumped in with Clinton and Blair's "Third Way." When asked whether there was anything concrete about the "Third Way" Prodi replied, "No. For me it was just a way to get to talk to Americans about things." He speaks about (eventually) shelling out money to rebuild Serbia.Although he taught at Harvard, Prodi's spoken English is not up to conceptual heavy lifting, so he falls into this agitated kind of conversation whereby he tries to communicate through vibes, rather like the Italians you see in Sinatra movies or Prince spaghetti commercials. He'll typically reply to a question by saying, "It's..." -- then smiling, and then agitating his hands frantically as if he's miming shaking a martini -- "You see?"He is, in the best sense, a political softie. That he jiggles like a man who's no stranger to the Second Helping reinforces the image. His opponent, the Communist Giuliano Ferrara, once dismissed Prodi as "mortadella with a human face."

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