Profile: Is he the spider or the fly?: Giulio Andreotti, enigma at the heart of Italy's crisis

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TWICE this week, pale and drawn but with his sardonic smile still playing faintly on his thin lips, Giulio Andreotti has struggled through the flailing throng of television cameramen, photographers and journalists to defend himself before fellow Senators, a thick red folder containing his defence held high against his chest like a shield. In the frightening scrum, this ordinary office folder seemed also to represent a defence of the Italian history that had produced him, and which for half a century he, more than anyone, had personified.

It is a history run through with fine webs of mystery and intrigue. Corrupt secret service agents, the Mafia, terrorists, crooked bankers, sinister Masons have been been glimpsed dimly in the background, pulling, or being pulled by, invisible threads. There have been bomb attacks, assassinations, unsolved outrages, which to Byzantine Italian minds - and not only them - seemed to have a spine-chilling logic.

As the political system that bred such monstrosities collapses, the forces that barred access to the whole truth are weakening. And brave magistrates, following up the threads for the first time, believe they have come to the spider at the centre.

Did Giulio Andreotti spin an unthinkable alliance between the state and the Mafia, exchanging favours that enhanced the power and influence of each, while ensuring the survival of a western- oriented regime in Italy? Did he use their killers to eliminate a carabinieri general who had vanquished the Red Brigade terrorists and whose hero status - and possibly inside knowledge - may have posed a threat? Or a journalist who may have known too much about the kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro, the fellow Christian Democrat statesman and rival political intellect who had worked to bring the Communists into the political fold?

And, as the magistrates' investigations have started people thinking about the past again, what was the nature of his links with Licio Gelli, the mastermind of the P2 masonic conspiracy who had his men in key positions throughout Italian public life? Or with Michele Sindona, the Mafia financier with Vatican connections later poisoned in jail? Or with Roberto Calvi, the crooked Mafia and Vatican-linked banker found hanging under Blackfriars bridge? How did he manage to come under investigation by the parliamentary inquiry commission no fewer than 26 times, and 26 times see the charges dropped?

Or is he merely a courageous statesman whose governments passed laws to clamp down on the Mafia and who is now paying the price, not with the traditional lupara, the sawn-off shotgun, but with a diabolical plot to entrap him and painfully destroy his political career? Is he, rather than the spider, the fly?

Certainly, the allegations levelled at him by Mafia pentiti (supergrasses) would seem to confirm everything his enemies always said about him. For them he was Beelzebub, a name coined by Bettino Craxi, the former Socialist prime minister, insinuating that he may have been behind the P2 conspiracy. In Rome, Communists have his caricature, complete with horns and a tail, hanging on the wall along with a picture of Mikhail Gorbachev: their symbols of good and evil. The horns and tail, or an inscrutable mask, have been his attributes in myriad cartoons over the years.

A man as clever, as cynical, as powerful and Machiavellian as Andreotti was easy to blame for things that could not be fully explained. He could therefore be an easy target for a Mafia plot. And with most of the known evidence against him coming from Mafia pentiti - other witnesses having been murdered or unlikely to talk - his case cannot be easily dismissed. It is, ironically, the same defence as that of Salvatore Riina, the Mafia's boss of all bosses, captured in January.

Andreotti's political life began in the Vatican library one day in 1942 when, by chance, he met Alcide de Gasperi, who was employed there. De Gasperi, soon to become Italy's greatest and most revered post-war statesman, drew him into the circle of young Catholics who were being groomed by the church to launch a popular Catholic party once Fascism and the war had ended.

He worked on its clandestine paper Il Popolo (now the Christian Democrat party organ), was at 26 the youngest member of the post-war constituent assembly, and for several years was under- secretary in De Gasperi's office. Since then he has been a cabinet minister 33 times, and prime minister seven. Almost more important, he has been the unchallenged leader of a powerful faction in the Christian Democrat party itself.

But he had been shaped much earlier, from the moment on 14 January 1919 when he was born on the third floor of a house in Via dei Prefetti, a stone's throw from the parliament building in Rome. His father, a schoolteacher, died when he was three. He and his elder brother and sister were brought up on a meagre pension by his mother and, above all, his aunt Mariannina: 'She brought me up in the Catholic wisdom of the Roman populace: never overdramatise things, everything sorts itself out in time, keep a certain distance from things in life, not many things are really important . . .'

It was also an austere, unemotional upbringing in which he learnt to hide his feelings and don the now-familiar mask of impassivity. He once admitted he and his mother had never kissed.

Much of his boyhood was spent in Segni, a small town near Rome where he was absorbed into the world that remained his for life: the Catholic church. Vestments, candles and incense became his environment, the local priests his father-figures. He became chief altar-boy, recruiting others, keeping discipline. His best friends were seminarians, later to become bishops, archbishops and cardinals. At university, where he studied canon law (his thesis was 'The Personality of the Criminal in Church Law') he joined the Catholic youth organisation. One of its chaplains was Giovanni Battista Montini, later to become Pope Paul VI, who introduced him to Pope Pius XII, with whom he became very close. For decades he was the Christian Democrat politician closest to the church.

The disbelief of the Vatican was evident in its reaction to the allegations. The Ursuline Sisters in their convent at Cortina d'Ampezzo where he and his wife, Livia, spend holidays, cannot grasp how anyone could suggest such things about that wonderful Senator Andreotti. He goes to mass every day.

His boyhood enemies dubbed him, sneeringly, 'sacristan', and many people expected him to go into the church, but the life never appealed to him. Nevertheless, to Italians he always looked like a certain kind of priest, unctuous and ingratiating, rubbing his hands or sitting with his knees together, his hands folded on them, smiling. He is often described as 'Jesuitical', meaning subtle, devious, cunning.

The Catholic approach to politics, in a country that never experienced the Reformation, only the backlash Counter-Reformation, is far removed from that of Protestants. The church focuses more on private morals than public ones in the exercise of power. Mr Andreotti, whether guilty or innocent, would be more at home with Fouche, Talleyrand and Mazzarin than with, say, Willy Brandt. And this, for many years, was fine by his fellow Italians.

His whole political life has been dedicated to power, obtaining it and keeping it, long after his contemporaries had faded away. 'Perhaps I am a little eternal,' he once joked. One mainstay was the church, the other was doubtless the vested interest of the United States and its allies in keeping Italy, with its huge Communist party, firmly anchored in the West - an interest that overrode possible misgivings about other things. An eternal politician in a political world that also seemed eternal, safe from challenge or change . . .

And yet, shrewd as he is, did he sense that the end was coming as the East- West stand-off that fossilised Italian politics for so long, gradually relaxed? Was it coincidence that his laws to combat the Mafia coincided with the ending of that old world? Was his suggestion last week of a possible 'American plot' to get him perhaps a subtle and possibly threatening reminder of complicities his friends abroad would rather forget?

Another source of his power was friendships, or rather a vast network of connections built up over many years that he could activate at will. Andreotti, said one pentito, 'has friendships beyond all imagining'. The pentiti, if they are to be believed, feared Andreotti. Many of them killers, survivors in a cut-throat society, they were afraid to mention his name until they felt he was so weakened that it was safe to do so.

But ordinary Italians did not fear Andreotti. They loved him. For a time he was, with the actor Alberto Sordi, one of their most popular figures. His books were bestsellers, he was a prized guest at dazzling parties. He spoke like they did, not political gobbledegook. He once said that the secret of staying in power was never to distance yourself from people, and never to tell lies. On the latter he has been caught out long ago, but his accessibility, his lack of side, his love of horseracing, football, thrillers and other ordinary pastimes were endearing.

And his wit. It is hard to fear one who makes you laugh and Andreotti's brilliant, caustic one-liners are famous, to be quoted and requoted. Unlike many Italians he can poke fun at himself, and be amused at even the most vicious jokes directed against him.

The last joke however, may not be from him, but from Bettino Craxi. Years ago Craxi, conceding that Andreotti was as cunning as a fox, added that it is in the nature of foxes to end up at the furriers. After nearly 50 years of power and 26 escapes, can he save his skin now?