On the campaign trail with Ilie Nastase in Bucharest

As the driver of the Ilie Nastase Campaign Jeep swerves violently to avoid a pothole that is only a few inches off being classified a crater, the former tennis star lurches sideways in his seat, checks his hair with his hand, turns to me and gives an exasperated shrug: ‘See what I mean about the roads?’ he says. ‘Unbelievable.’ We are driving at alarming speed down a colourless boulevard in Bucharest. The Jeep, a voluptuously upholstered Cherokee, stands out among the drab-looking Ladas, stray dogs and orange tractors. It has started to drizzle, and women who have scurried out on to cement-and-iron balconies to gather in their washing stop to stare as we pass.

Perhaps they have heard that the Jeep has replaced the Ilie Nastase Campaign Volvo, the vehicle that became an electoral liability after the press discovered that it was sporting number plates taken as a joke from a car belonging to the former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, following his execution in 1989. Perhaps, in keeping with the mixture of gloom, apathy and anger that afflicts the two and a half million citizens of this city, they simply don’t care. Either way, on 2 June, these onlookers can vote to decide whether they want the man in the Cherokee to be their next mayor. He will need 51 per cent of the votes to win but, with one poll saying he has 48 per cent and another, equally lacking in objectivity, saying he has only 31.8 per cent, it will be a close-run thing.

This has come as something of a surprise to the candidate. He had assumed that, because he is a national hero, it would be a walkover. Instead, in the four months since Nastase announced he was to stand for the four-year post – according to freshly-minted legend, after he drove over one pothole too many – he has learned to expect a bumpy ride from the Romanian press. For the most part, ‘Nasty’ – as the world came to know him after his Centre Court outbursts in the Seventies – has been able to rise above the accusations and keep his celebrated temper in check. One exception was at an impromptu press conference during which a reporter questioned the legality of Nastase’s Romanian citizenship. This goaded him into suggesting, at the top of his normally languid voice, that the reporter should perform anatomically impossible acts involving his mother’s womb.

Also squeezed into the Jeep are two of Nastase’s cronies, each vying with the other for the status of ‘official campaign manager’, and each laughing raucously at some private joke. Take That are crooning on the radio, and Nastase has to raise his voice to be heard above the band as he translates for me. ‘They think is funny that the papers are saying I am gay. Me! I am more like a lesbian!’ He laughs and jabs an accusing thumb at Ion Serban, one of his oldest friends and confidants. ‘This just because I was seen in a nightclub dancing with him. Is just a sign that the campaign is starting to get dirty, I think.’

A further sign, he says, is the gratuitous and wholly misplaced slur that he fixed the David Cup in 1977, when Romania – specifically Nastase – unexpectedly lost to France. That really hurts, because he loves his tennis, and his country, and is one of the greatest – certainly the most instinctive, flamboyant and graceful – players the world has ever seen. The US and the French Opens, three Grand Slam doubles tournaments and more than 55 other tennis titles constitute a formidable record. When I suggest that he could always sue for libel, he laughs: ‘You know what country we are in here? They can say anything they want. What you going to sue? No one has any money.’

The average income in Bucharest is £30 a month. Corruption is endemic. But it is assumed Nastase cannot be bought: he is, after all, a millionaire, reaping an income from £1.3 million worth of winnings; shares in various Romanian companies; tennis coaching; sponsorship from Adidas; property (‘I have about six houses around the world,’ he tells me in a low, nonchalant voice, as though trying not to be overheard in the restaurant where we are having lunch. ‘I think maybe I have to sell some’); and, if all goes well, a contract from Umbro that he is putting together with his friend Ion, with whom he runs a company exporting Nastase bolognese sauce to the US. Indeed, he has said he will not even accept a wage as mayor (‘I copy idea from my friend, the mayor of Los Angeles, who is also very rich man and not need the money.’ he explains). But as a wag from a French television crew remarked to me: ‘He could only afford two Herms ties with the wage anyway.’

For as his Jeep stands out, so do his clothes. I spent a week with Nastase on his pot-holed campaign trail, and each day saw a different silk Herms tie. In one market, an old woman came up to him and fingered the tie with a look of contempt on her face. A heated exchange followed, from which Ilie shuffled off looking ruffled. He has an ambling, hunched walk, slightly pigeon-toed, and he often holds his hands self-consciously behind his back, as if doing a Prince Philip impersonation. He also has a repertoire of expressions that he uses for the five or six visits he makes to factories, schools and markets each day. When he is listening to hard-luck stories, he cocks his head to one side and chews on his inner cheek, contorting his face, his lower lip in a pout. When someone complains about the diabolical state of the city’s water supply, its crime rate or its fuel shortages, he purses his lips and holds his hand to his chest as it to say ‘Don’t look at me.’ When someone offers him support or asks for his autograph, he gives a wry, lazy grin and a shrug, followed by a brotherly arm round the shoulders.

Each visit follows a pattern. If it is a factory, his entourage – about nine members of his campaign team, the three-man French television crew and I – start by filing through a studded red leather door with the word ‘Director’ on it in fluorescent plastic. Inside, there is always a long vinyl-covered table laid out with fizzy orange and Twiglets. Everyone sits down, and the factory director gives a five-minute summation of his ‘probleme’. at the Rocar bus factory, for instance, the problem was that all the buses they had made were sitting in the park outside, unused because the current mayor had just imported 300 buses from the Netherlands company DAF. Ilie wrung his hands, shook his head in disbelief and pointed out that the expense of importing spare parts must be astronomical. Alas, while he was saying this, everyone had become distracted by a stocky babushka who had entered the room, seen the television crew and, for fear of getting in shot, proceeded to serve Turkish coffee to everyone from a crouching position.

The Turkish coffee and fizzy orange drinking ritual is always followed by a tour of the factory. At the Rocar plant, women on the balconies above us ducked at first when Ilie looked at them, then slowly stood up, like gophers in the desert, waved sheepishly and giggled into their hands. One craggy-faced man with a walrus moustache and a leather jacket stared open-mouthed at Nastase as he passed, then jogged over and tugged on my sleeve. A colleague of his came over to translate. ‘He wants to know what Nastase is doing here.’ ‘He is running for mayor,’ I said. When this was explained, the old man’s face creased into a grey-toothed grin as he said: ‘Nastase, he likes to party, yes?’

And there’s the rub: Nastase has an image problem. The crossover from celebrity to politician happens in other countries – Clint Eastwood in America; Imran Khan in Pakistan; Gyles Brandreth in Britain – but in Romania the incongruity is more pronounced, and many Romanians just don’t know how to take Ilie, as one soon feels comfortable about calling him. One afternoon, we sat having a late lunch in an empty, low-key restaurant. We had been knocking back shots of whisky to fortify ourselves against the unseasonal cold. ‘Cheers and brassieres!’ Nastase had said for my benefit. Boiled tripe with eggs, butter and sour cream had been served. ‘Is guts,’ Nastase explained helpfully. ‘Is not from your crazy, crazy English beef, you know. Good, sane Romanian beef. We have it seven in morning to cure hangover after late night.’ A lissome young woman with black hair spilling over a white shirt had been hovering outside, pressing her handsome face up against the rain-dabbled window. She was beckoned in and presented to Nastase and the handful of his courtiers eating at his table, as though to a Regency prince. He eyed her up and down approvingly, and she blushed delightedly, before asking for his autograph. It reminded me of a faux pas Ilie had made when he first announced his intention to run for mayor. When warned by a friend that the whole country used to love him but that now only half of it would, he replied: ‘I hope it’s the chicks.’

In the factories, women did not mob him exactly, but they did sometimes join in with the walkabouts. In the Tricodava factory, which makes sweaters, 2,300 women work in cavernous hangars, lined up at row after row of sewing machines. The usual entourage had already been doubled in size by local officials and directors of the company and, at one point, Ilie found himself at the head of a large column. Wandering up a corridor, he turned off into a room to the right. It turned out to be a large cupboard but, by the time Ilie had realised this, it was too late. The column had trooped in behind him, making his attempts to manoeuvre out again a symphony of social awkwardness.

Still, there were political points to be made: at the massive Vulcan boiler factory, the ritual of the fizzy orange was followed by a presentation to Ilie of three Vulcan ashtrays. ‘Corruption! Corruption! S’il vous pla”t!’ he roared delightedly, for the benefit of the French television crew. That night, at Nastase’s home, I notice that one of these ashtrays has found its way on to a dresser, alongside an old sepia photo of his father as a young man in a police uniform.

This house, on Andrei Muresanu Street in Sector 1, the diplomatic quarter, is luxurious by western standards, let alone Romanian. On one wall is a kitsch painting of an orphan girl looking melancholy in a headscarf. On others hand a faux medieval tapestry and a painting of a nude woman. The cushions on the chairs are leopardskin pattern. The contrast between this and the dreary factories Nastase visits is marked, and, one suspects, he is well aware of it. I had been met at the door by his friend Ion, who is staying at the house (although Romanian, Ion normally lives in Italy). He has brought in a few beers to drink while watching the football on the widescreen television. It is 8pm, and Nastase is still drying his hair from a shower as he walks down the stairs. He complains that he has only just got back from a meeting and that, since the campaign started, has rarely been home before nine o’clock. (He had to make an exception tonight because Juventus were playing.) While waiting for the match to start, we sit on Ilie’s fawn cord-covered sofa and sip cognacs. When Claudia Schiffer appears in a programme trailer, Ilie muses that people want younger supermodels these days. ‘Maybe she should go in for politics,’ he says. ‘Like the beauty queen in Venezuela.’ Ilie then shows a home video of his trip to Paris the previous week. It pictures him glad-handing a throng of wellwishers who have spotted him and have come over for his autograph. ‘Everyone recognises me there and stares. Here they are more shy.’

Sitting on the edge of his seat in a beige turtleneck sweater, he looks relaxed. But he admits with a yawn that the electioneering has taken its toll. ‘I very tired. It wears you down, this campaign, because everyone is always complaining. I take seven vitamin pills a day. I have a lot energy. But I surprised everyone complain so much.’ He cups his hands behind his head. ‘Sometimes when I meet them in the street, I can’t look them in the eye because I know there is nothing much I can do to help them. Sometimes I don’t think they care who is going to be mayor.’

He is also, he says, peeved at the lack of interest shown in his campaign by the Romanian press. They are, it seems, suspicious that he is now an outsider. After all, until the beginning of this year, he was living three months of the year in Paris, three in New York, and the rest travelling. Here is a man, they say, who speaks five languages, has spent most of his adult life abroad and is now trying to discover his own country in just one month. When I put this to Nastase, he sighs. ‘Oh please. That is too much, you know. Discovering is too hard a word. I always knew what was going on in Romania.’ I ask if it would be fair to say, though, that he is having a crash course in Romanian politics. ‘Yes, I am discovering about the politics, but not the life. I know the life here.’ When I say that the campaign is also a chance for him to discover the ordinary people, he goes on the defensive again. ‘You don’t think I meet ordinary people before? I was an ordinary people. Do you think a few years away is going to change me? How can they say I live abroad too long to understand the Romanian people? That is nonsense. I lived here until I 20. They try and find all these excuses to put me down. But’, he adds, ‘sometimes when I am upset and down, I am at my best.’

The Romanian press’s suspicion seems to have two sources; one, that he is running on behalf of the ruling PDSR party (effectively the rump of the old Communist party) – because, he says, they asked him first; two, that his motives for running are unclear. He will be 50 in July; is his foray into politics just a symptom of mid-life crisis? He doesn’t dismiss the possibility out of hand. His father, a bank cashier who died ten years ago, had never been particularly impressed by his son’s tennis stardom: ‘He wouldn’t make fun of me exactly, but he wasn’t into sport.’ Perhaps he thinks his father would have been proud if he succeeded in cleaning up his home town? ‘I don’t know,’ he says. ‘Maybe.’

On the dining-room table there is a cartoon of Ilie in his tennis strip sweeping away a rat. There is also a photo of Alexandra, his second wife, who at the moment lives in New York with his two adopted children, Nicholas, eight, and Charlotte, six, but who will come to live here should Nastase win. While Ilie watches the rest of the video, Ion takes me into the study before disappearing off to the kitchen to see if he can find some Nastase bolognese sauce to show me. In the study, there are two framed posters of Nastase diving to return serves. On the desk are about a dozen tennis medals of various shapes and sizes, and on a side table, an arrangement of tennis shoes from his sponsor, Adidas. On another wall is a photo of Ilie with Nixon – his first taste of power politics, perhaps. More tellingly, on a shelf, alongside a pink cuddly hippo, is a book called Professional Speaking: Getting Ahead in Business and Life through Effective Communication.

Socially, there is nothing wrong with his communication skills. Strangers warm to Nastase almost immediately: he is cool, good-humoured, charming and open, in contrast to the overly-protective people who surround him and squabble among themselves as they try to curry favour. His campaign slogan is: ‘Ilie Nastase – an honest man.’ Certainly his promise that he will resign if he hasn’t managed to change anything within two years is a noble one. But ‘an innocent man’, or even ‘a naive man’ might seem equally appropriate descriptions. Ilie’s more astute friends and supporters are worried that if he becomes mayor, he will surround himself with the wrong advisers and that the dread hand of corruption will take him in its grip. He is aware of the danger. ‘I met the President recently, and I think he very good politician,’ he says. ‘But he has a lot of people around him who do wrong. All the security guys that surrounded Ceausescu disappeared for a while and have come back to surround him now.’

On the Thursday morning I report to the campaign headquarters at 9am. A trip to a hospital has had to be cancelled, and Ilie is at a bit of a loose end. We both watch a Romanian-dubbed version of Little House on the Prairie, which is as disturbing an experience as it sounds. Ilie yawns, looks at his watch and sits in silence for a while before he remembers that a video of a foreign news report about him has arrived in the post. He invites me into his office to watch it, and the campaign team filters in, too. At first, everyone laughs at the famous archive clips of Ilie clowning around on Centre Court, carrying an umbrella and wearing a policeman’s helmet. But then the presenter compares the squalor of Bucharest to that of Sarajevo. There are gasps of indignation. Nastase chews agitatedly on the arm of his glasses. ‘How can he say that?’ he fumes. Victor Ciorbea, the opposition candidate and Ilie’s closes rival, comes on and says that the former playboy will not be able to sit still in council meetings because he will get bored too easily. The film then cuts to a clip of Ilie doing a grinding dance behind a beautiful young woman in a disco. Ilie is visibly rattled as he watches this.

Afterwards, squeezed up beside him in the Jeep, we drive past rusty cranes standing eerily idle above ugly, unfinished tower blocks. Everyone notices that someone has been at work along the walls of the university – where the bloody revolution started in 1989 – with an orange spray-can, intermittently splatting the words ‘Ilie, Primarie!’ (‘Nastase for Mayor!’) over a hundred yards. No one comments. Ilie is still brooding about the news clip. ‘Why do they have to attack me and not my policy?’ he complains. ‘Why does Ciorbea worry about me? I don’t know. I don’t worry about him with his glasses and his ugly face. He very boring but I don’t go around saying this. Is crazy. He promises everyone money to pay for the roads and buses, but where is that going to come from? He just makes promises he knows he can’t keep, like he say he fix the city in exactly 200 days. How? With what? They expect a miracle?’

Nastase says that what really annoyed him was the scene of him dancing. ‘How could they cut to the disco like that? It look terrible. I’m just dancing with my daughter [21-year-old Natalie, from his first marriage, who lives in Paris and for whom he is said once to have paid a kidnap ransom of £5 million].’ The dancing had taken place at the Ilie Nastase Fan Club, a newly-established disco held every Friday night at which young supporters get free drinks. Ilie is aware of the bad impression such scenes might give, but I see him later, at a college hall, doing a similar dance with a girl amid thumping techno music, encircled by hundreds of 16- to 18-year-olds. For this occasion, a lone Romanian newspaper reporter had turned out and, as he saw Ilie take to the dance floor, he turned to me and crosses himself. ‘I want to be sick,’ he said. ‘I am embarrassed that you get the wrong impression of Romanian politics. This is not serious. This is showbiz. He hasn’t got a single serious policy.’

Sadly, this became apparent on the Friday morning, when Ilie launched his manifesto. Despite his self-help book on better communication, Nastase’s talents as a showman had deserted him. Around 200 people – dignitaries, Romanian celebrities and, at last, Romanian television and newspaper reporters – had crowded into the baroque splendour of the Academia Romana.

Outside, for once, the sun was shining. Inside, a banquet of pastries and canapés had been laid out, and the eagerly awaited campaign posters were pinned to the walls. They showed Ilie rolling up his sleeve. The message was clear: he means business. The slogan read: ‘He built a name for himself – he can rebuild the town.’ Each guest received a copy of his manifesto and a blue lighter and pen inscribed with the words ‘Nastase Primar!’, which smudged when you rubbed them. Nadia Comaneci, the Olympic gymnastics gold medallist, was mingling, a petite and nervous figure. ‘I wish you success, from a sportswoman to a sportsman,’ she aid to Ilie before giving him a good-luck kiss.

A waiter came round with Cinzanos. It was 9.30am. With the crush of camera crews, popping flash bulbs, tape recorders held aloft, and two television screens relaying live pictures, it all looked very presidential – as I told Nastase afterwards when he asked what I had thought of it. What I didn’t say was that his speech could not have been more lacklustre. When, finally, he had come forward to the bank of microphones, he stood back, as if afraid of them, and no one could see him because there was no platform. Earlier, he had told me that he had spent four hours the previous day rehearsing his speech. It didn’t show. He did not look up from his notes, and all the wit and vivacity he exhibits in private was replaced by a nervous, turgid monotone. After a couple of minutes, people began to murmur in the background.

At the end of the speech, a Reuters reporters asked Nastase what his first priority as mayor would be. Ilie mumbled something, in English, about sorting out the administration. The reporter turned to me and said, ‘Believe me, his answers are even more bland in Romanian.’

Ilie had told me he thought it was important that everyone should get to see his policies in writing so that there could be no room misinterpretation. But there wasn’t much of substance to misinterpret, only platitudes along the lines of: ‘These elections come at an important point in our history. We have pollution, crime and bad administration… different departments should talk to each other…’

On the two television screens, an endorsement by his friend Richard Riordan, the mayor of Los Angeles, was shown. It lasted about five minutes, then repeated itself in a loop. It began: ‘As mayor of the great city of Los Angeles I send greetings and love to the people of the great city of Bucharest.’ Romanians who did not speak English looked on bemused. Those who did cringed as the cheesy mayor pulled out all the stops: ‘Ilie, I wish you and the good citizens of Bucharest the best of everything. They deserve you, because you are the best.’

I wandered outside and compared notes with the French television crew. ‘He didn’t exactly set the room on fire,’ said the presenter. ‘You’d think he would.’ Forty minutes later, I went back into the room to find that the mayor of the great city of Los Angeles was still sending greetings and love – loudly, in English – to the bemused people of the great city of Bucharest.

Few can doubt that Nastase’s heart is in the right place and that he is sincere in wanting to rescue the city of his birth. But as Dana Stamate, the lawyer and long-time friend of Ilie’s, said over lunch, he needs a good friend to tell him that he must learn to overcome his embarrassment about public speaking. ‘He is ashamed of his voice,’ she said. ‘He thinks he lacks charisma. I worry because he is a proud man and it will hurt him if he loses. But the worst thing is that people have noticed that he now speaks Romanian with a foreign accent.’

After the press conference, I walk back to the campaign headquarters with a now-buoyant Ilie. I ask him if he worries that he will look ridiculous if he fails. ‘I slept badly last night,’ he shrugs, ‘but I not worry if I fail. I think I have done the right thing.’ When we reach the lift to his office, he stops and stays, thoughtfully, ‘I was trying to tell someone that word you used to describe the launch. What was it again?’


‘That’s it,’ he says. ‘Presidential. I like that.’ And he gives up waiting for the lift and bounds up the stairs, two at a time.

Ilie Nastase was not elected mayor of Bucharest.