Saturday, May 14, 2011

An American Original

Two weeks ago my wife gave me a new book that has every right to become a classic of American politics, Politics and Pasta, by former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci, with help from David Fisher. (I am sure Mr. Fisher did plenty of work, but Buddy, as we call him in Rhode Island, obviously provided 95% of the information and the tone of the book.) Buddy has only intermittently made his way into the national, much less international consciousness, and I was rather shocked four years ago when it turned out that my copy editor had not heard of him even though she lives less than 100 miles away in Massachusetts. That is partly in the nature of my adopted home state, which is tucked away in one corner of New England--the smallest state, of course, territorially, although we boast more people than Wyoming, Vermont, or North Dakota. Buddy is an American original, and the book reads like a real life version of the great American classic All the King's Men. Politics and Sausage might have been a better title--if you want to know how political sausage is made, this is the book for you. It's an advanced course of city government, from snow removal to the promotion of tourism to managing the evening news.

Vincent "Buddy" Cianci was born in Providence in 1941, a second-generation Italian-American whose father--every bit as upwardly mobile as my first generation father--became a doctor. For some reason he grew up as a Republican in a highly Democratic city. He crossed cultural boundaries in his high school career, attending the elite Wasp Moses Brown school in Providence, and then went to college and to law school at Jesuit institutions. As prosecutor he indicted the most famous resident of his Federal Hill neighborhood, mob boss Raymond Patriarca, for murder, but the jury chose not to believe his one turncoat witness and Raymond got off. Like so many great political careers, his began by accident. He ran for Mayor against a split Democratic Party in 1974, one of the most Democratic years in the history of the United States, and won. The rest is history.

I must admit I was disappointed at the first 57 pages of the book, which were more cute than informative, but everything changed on p. 58, when Buddy took office. All the King's Men tells how Willie Stark, modeled on Huey Long, brought third-world Louisiana into the twentieth century. Buddy tells how Cianci rebuilt and revived a dying city. And make no mistake about it: without him, Providence might be in the same dreadful, pathetic shape as most secondary New England cities, including Bridgeport and Hartford in Connecticut, Worcester and Springfield and Lowell in Massachusetts, and our own Woonsocket and Pawtucket.   A mill town early in the 20th century, it had lost its industry and its tax base. Buildings were rapidly being demolished to become parking lots. If there is one thing that shines through almost every page of this book, it is Cianci's hopeless, overwhelming love for his native city. He wanted to revive it and give it a bright future, and during two long sojourns in City Hall (1975-84 and 1991-2002) he did. Unfortunately, both terms ended with his conviction of a serious crime--of which more later.

The story of what Buddy did for the city fills many pages. He saved old buildings and built new ones. He uncovered the Providence River. He revived the arts scene, even creating a neighborhood of the city that offered special tax breaks to artists. (I did not make that up.) One of his first alliances as mayor was with a Wasp lady from the Providence East Side, Antoinette Downing, aged 70, who had been trying to preserve old buildings since 1955. Together they preserved a great many more. I enjoyed imagining the first meeting between them: in the movie, he should be played by Danny De Vito and she should be played by Cate Blanchett in her Katharine Hepburn mode. They had nothing in common--except that they loved Providence.

Yet a far more revealing story involves the preservation of Providence's last remaining old movie palace, the downtown Loew's Theater, which subsequently became the Providence Performing Arts Center. The owner, B. A. Dario, had asked for a permit to demolish it. He found "a Waspy group" that wanted to buy and refurbish it, and he went to work making the deal happen, eventually pledging $1 million of city funds, quite possibly without the slightest idea where they would come from. Eventually he closed--or so he thought--the deal, only to get a phone call from Dario demanding an additional $40,000 on the grounds that the buyers had promised to pay him $1000 a day during negotiations. Buddy, who knows how to bargain, solved the problem by appointing Dario "artistic consultant to the city of Providence" for $25,000. "Now that," he writes, "is the kind of deal that I should have gone to jail for." That is only one of at least a dozen stories along those lines, most of them with happy endings. Buddy had to contend with a hostile city council most of his tenure, and his battles with them make for interesting reading as well.

That was only the beginning, but I was equally interested in Buddy's brief career as a national political figure. An east coast Republican mayor was a rara avis indeed in the mid-1970s, and the desperate Republican Party made use of him. He made a famous appearance at the 1976 Republican convention and became a part of President Ford's strategy committee. Never shy, he argued at one point that the party should make a major issue out of Carter's attendance at a segregated Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. He lost that fight, and he still thinks it could have made the difference in a very close election. In 1979, he tried and failed to persuade Ford to make another try for the Republican nomination on a visit to Palm Springs. The visit also led to a dinner invitation from Frank Sinatra, who asked him, "Do you know Raymond?" "Know him!" Buddy replied. "I prosecuted him!"

Reagan, of course, won the nomination, and the Reagan campaign persuaded Buddy to run for Governor of Rhode Island to try to help the ticket. Four years earlier, in 1976, he had allowed Wasp Republican John Chafee to talk him out of running for the Senate--a decision he still regrets. He did not expect to win the election, as indeed he did not, and he negotiated delicately with John Sears and Lyn Nofziger, two Reagan aides, about a possible post-election reward should he lose, such as a Caribbean Ambassadorship. Early in these negotiations Buddy asked Sears whether Governor Reagan knew about these promises. "That's the greatest part of working for Ronald Reagan," Sears replied. "He doesn't have to know." But when Buddy was tentatively selected to be Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Senator Chafee stopped it. The feud between Buddy and the Chafees continues to this day.

Buddy's first fall from grace, in 1984, involved his personal life. He is very frank about his first marriage, which began with an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, became very politically effective, but never, he says frankly, involved love. By 1984 it was dissolving, and in the midst of the divorce Buddy discovered his wife had been having an affair with a long-time friend of his, also married. He was even more incensed that her lover had been advising her about the divorce, which had turned out to be more expensive than he thought. Enraged, Buddy called the man over to his house, where a nasty confrontation ensued in the presence of several witnesses, including a policeman. No injuries appear to have been sustained, but Buddy admits to throwing a cigar and an ashtray. He presents convincing evidence that the other man--the target--did not want to prosecute in order to avoid the publicity, but political opponents found out about it and he was suddenly indicted on serious assault charges. He decided to plead guilty, escaped jail time, and had to leave City Hall. He initially went into the real estate business, in which he was already very well versed, and then discovered another calling as a radio talk-show host. He returned to City Hall triumphantly in 1991.

Was there corruption in Buddy's Administrations? Undoubtedly, as he admits--tens of people working for the city were convicted of crimes. Buddy is rather discreet about organized crime's tremendous presence in the city and its influence, and he is frank about soliciting campaign contributions. I must say I was suspicious about one story he told. Early in his career Buddy caught the manager of the Providence Civic Center taking kickbacks from entertainers in exchange for choice dates. Year's later, in 1980, Buddy angered younger voters, as he explained, by canceling a Who concert at the same venue. He claimed he did so because several people had been killed in a riot after a Who concert in Cincinnati, but being a suspicious bastard myself, I couldn't help wondering if the promoter had actually failed to come up with some of kind of favor--perhaps a campaign contribution--that the Mayor expected to get. Meanwhile, Buddy enjoyed throwing his weight around, and his abrasive personality got him into some very unseemly feuds, including one with Brown University that started when two nephews of his failed to gain admission. I would have been glad to explain to the Mayor that college admissions have become such a crapshoot that no one, really, has any valid grounds for complaint when admission is denied.

The racketeering conviction which sent Buddy to jail in 2002, however, raises profound questions about the state of American justice. The indictment charged him with 1 essential count of running a criminal enterprise--in this case, the city government of Providence--and 29 specific counts involving illegal acts in which he had supposedly either participated or known of. The most dramatic was a bribe accepted on video tape in City Hall by one Frank Corrente, a subordinate official, who claimed he was receiving it on Cianci's behalf. The government failed to convince the jury that Buddy was guilty of any of the 29 specific counts, but the jury--which was mostly composed of people living in surrounding cities and towns, not Providence--found him guilty on the overarching charge. The RICO law was designed by my friend Bob Blakey to convict organized crime bosses who could not be directly tied to illegal acts. I shall be curious to see what he thinks of this particular application of it, and Harvey Silverglate, a defense counsel who is a regular reader here, may have something to say as well. In any case, Buddy served four years at Fort Dix, New Jersey; re-emerged looking far, far better without his infamous toupee; and resumed his talk show career. He also became the subject of a wonderful documentary film, Buddy, and I got to meet him at one of its screenings.

The late Arthur Schwartz was a songwriter who wrote many famous tunes with his collaborator, lyricist Howard Dietz. He was also a close friend of my parents who enjoyed playing and singing his songs in their home. I was never more delighted than at the end of the film Buddy, when a performance of one of his songs, which could hardly have been more a propos, accompanied the credits. I can't seem to embed the video, but you can click here and end this post in exactly the same way.

1 comment:

Gerald Meaders said...


Many thanks for the article.

Most American politicians, unfortunately, might be indicted on such 'RICO type' charges, based on 'indirect' political influences on them.

Bobbitt has an interesting passage, on what one might call the 'sausage' system, in 'The Shield of Achilles'. I can find the page reference if needed.....

All the best,