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The Longest-Running Soap Opera in the Americas : While the Argentine President Flirts With Actresses, Races Boats and Fights With His Estranged Wife in Public, His Once-Rich Nation Falls Deeper Into Despair

August 18, 1991|SANTIAGO O'DONNELL | Times staff writer Santiago O'Donnell reported from Argentina.

It's siesta time, but hardly anybody in Argentina is sleeping. Instead, millions are glued to their television sets, watching the country's most celebrated womanizer, President Carlos Saul Menem, demonstrate his technique. Menem's target today is Mirtha Legrand, the ranking glamour queen of Argentina, who hosts two-hour interview lunches in the state-owned television studio. At 61, Menem is small, dark-skinned and dapper in his French-cut blue suit. Silver sideburns sprout from his head of jet-black hair into bushy, old-fashioned mutton chops. As he strolls onto Legrand's set, flashing his trademark winner's smile, he looks more like a triumphant jockey than a modern-day Valentino.

Voluptuous, blond and blue-eyed, Legrand is to Argentina what Elizabeth Taylor is to America. Menem, son of a Syrian door-to-door carpet salesman in the poorest province of northwest Argentina, reduces her to mush in minutes.

"I'm enchanted by him!" Legrand exuberantly confides to the nation. Then, turning to Menem, she coyly asks the question on everybody's mind. "All the women are crazy about you! How do you do it?"

Menem looks straight into her eyes: "Sometimes I go crazy, too, Mirtha," he murmurs. The innuendo is so bald even a child could get it. It works, too. Legrand is thrown off balance for all of Argentina to see. She fumbles to collect herself, to restore the interview to its proper course with an abrupt change of subject. Five days earlier, 13 rebels had died in an attempted coup against Menem. What about that? she asks.

Gone in a flash is the seductive purr. Now comes Menem, the smoldering master of macho. "The rebels are just a bunch of outlaws, traitors, criminals," he replies. "I didn't hesitate at all. I simply told the army chief of staff, " A deguello (throat-cutting time)!" Minutes later, the subject is back to women. "Would you like to have a woman appointed to your cabinet of ministers?" Legrand asks. "I'd like to have a whole bunch!" Menem blurts out, giggling. Then it's time for a tango. Legrand leads Menem onto the dance floor. He pulls her firmly against his body, and they dance cheek to cheek. Legrand closes her eyes. Menem grins at the camera. As the credits roll, Legrand backs away from Menem and, dreamy-eyed, says with a sigh, "If this were the last program I ever taped, it would be the perfect way to end my career."

She is right. That afternoon, her program breaks rating records for its time slot. The next morning, every major newspaper in Argentina raves over Menem's charm. Like Legrand, all of Argentina seems caught in the spell of spry, wiry, charismatic Carlos Menem, latest pretender to the throne of Juan Peron.

Like Peron and his second wife, the famous Evita, Menem knows how to captivate a nation into at least periodically forgetting its problems. Whether he's flying a helicopter, flirting with actresses or throwing his wife, Zulema, out of the Casa Rosada presidential palace, Menem is a master of flamboyance, the king of Latin machismo. For the amusement of the masses, the tireless Menem plays soccer with Diego Maradona and tennis with Gabriela Sabatini--and holds his own.

But unlike Peron's proud nation, Menem's Argentina is devastated. While Menem takes part in high-speed motor boat races for the TV cameras, inflation soars and coups are hatched and quelled. While he shoots hoops with the national basketball team, the famed mothers of Argentina's "disappeared" march weekly around Casa Rosada, demanding justice for their missing sons and daughters. While he roars around town in his Ferrari with glamorous actresses and brags about his prowess as "a seducer," his estranged wife publicly accuses him of betraying the nation. "I can't give out my secret," he protests when asked about women during an interview. "If I tell you, I'll lose my edge. Besides, I might want to sell my formula abroad, since we are in need of foreign currency."

IF MENEM WOULD RATHER PLAY SOCCER than statesman, it's understandable. If Argentines occupy themselves with the soap opera of Menem and his estranged wife instead of demanding that he get real, that's understandable too. Anything is better than having to face the question that haunts every Argentine: How did it come to this?

Only four decades ago, Argentina was regarded as having the potential of a Canada or an Australia. A vast nation of 30 million, Argentina is so rich in natural resources that investors from all over the globe drooled, so promising that millions of European immigrants, at the turn of the century, chose it as the place to pursue their American Dream. Here, in this lush and romantic land, the sky was presumably the limit.

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