In selecting and editing the image that accompanies
this post, I not only cropped my original photo but also, because of the
waning, mid-afternoon light of the late-October day in which it was taken,
lightened the setting: the lovely, water-centered downtown of Providence, R.I. In certain ways,
something similar is occurring in summaries of the life of a man instrumental
in remaking this landscape, former mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, who died Thursday at age 74.
In the attempt to get a sharp focus on his life, a
number of commentaries have inevitably excised certain elements that would add
context. At the same time, the darkness that existed at various points in his
life has been radically reduced, to the point that the question legitimately
arises whether one is getting a true picture of past and current reality.
In guidebooks I read and a tour I took of Providence
on a short vacation last fall, Cianci was, after Roger Williams, the name that
came up repeatedly. The general gist of these fast summaries went something
“See that gentrified neighborhood? It was
organized-crime turf for decades before Buddy prosecuted the Mafia as part of
the Rhode Island Attorney General's Anti-Corruption Strike Force. See our
downtown? It symbolized Rust Belt urban decay until Buddy supported historic
preservation and creating Waterside Park. People even started calling
Providence ‘America’s Renaissance City’! And Buddy was everywhere wearing this
toupee that he called his ‘squirrel.’ Then he ran afoul of the law and went to
jail. Now he’s out. Wanna guess what he’s doing? Hosting his own radio talk
show, that’s what! Can you believe it?”
In a number of these commentaries about Buddy (it
was never “Vincent” or even “Vince”), the words “charm” and “rogue” appeared so
closely together that the temptation seemed irresistible to conflate the two,
as if he were a successor to New York’s Prohibition-era mayor, Jimmy Walker, or
Boston’s James Michael Curley (the model for the hero of Edwin O’Connor’s
classic novel about the decline of big-city political machines, The Last Hurrah).
And he seems
positively consequential when one looks around Providence and sees a tangible architectural
legacy, completely unlike the monstrous Albany glass boxes created by New York
Governor Rockefeller: a downtown whose gondolas and popular Waterfire display has led some to view Providence as
a New England version of Venice. The city rediscovered its heart through three rivers redirected with Buddy's support.
Unfortunately, Buddy could redirect bodies of water
far more easily than he could rechannel his own restless energy, greed and
resentment. Over the years, some New Yorkers have spoken of former Mayor Rudy
Giuliani with the same disdain they might display towards another grim zealot,
De Torquemada of the Spanish Inquisition.
But it may be that Cianci’s snappy
one-liners made him far more dangerous in his own sphere than Giuliani could
ever hope to be in his. After all, Giuliani was only “America’s Mayor” for two
terms; Buddy was elected to lead “America’s Renaissance City” six times.
For a long time, humor was, I believe, Buddy’s stay-out-of-jail
card. For the first nine years of his time in City Hall, 22 city workers and contractors—including
Buddy’s chief of staff and city solicitor—were convicted of corruption charges.
But the mayor was not charged for those offenses. Far too many people would
rather take the word of this uninhibited extrovert that he didn’t know a thing
about what went on under his own nose.
What got him the first time, in 1984, was an act too
blatant and brutal to ignore: Suspecting that a contractor was having an affair
with his estranged wife, Buddy summoned him to his home, on the pretext of
negotiating city business. With the contractor seated in a chair in front of
the fireplace, surrounded by a uniformed cop, the city’s director of Public
Works and Cianci’s divorce lawyer, Buddy slapped his target around
repeatedly, daring him to hit back, then threw an ashtray at him
and threatened him with a fireplace log.
That first stint in City Hall ended with Buddy’s
resignation from City Hall, the condition of his plea deal. But given the
assault and the use of city officials to back him up, Buddy was lucky to get
off even that easily.
All things considered, Buddy wasn’t out of office
that long: only six years till he was back in City Hall. Originally a
Republican, he had by this time turned independent, the way that a canceled
sitcom might migrate from one network to another. These were the years when he
became a media personality: acclaimed for reclaiming downtown, appearing on Don Imus, promoting his own pasta sauce—all while
posing as chastened by his earlier career reversal.
For someone whose greatest weapon might have been
the entertainment he brought people, this might have been the greatest act of
all. All the while, he was orchestrating bribes for jobs, contracts and contributions
to his campaign fund. The FBI caught up with him after another decade in
office. Following a conviction on one count of racketeering conspiracy, Buddy entered prison (or, as he cheekily put it, a “gated community”). In 2014, the lure of office was still strong enough that, even stricken with cancer, he ran again for mayor--and his act still beguiled enough people that this convicted felon received 45% of the vote.
“Was he more corrupt—or more corrupting to our
democratic ideals—than that other Republican turned independent mayor, Michael
Bloomberg, who is said to be incorruptible because he is so stupefyingly rich,
but who used his power to persuade the City Council to overrule two voter
referendums in favor of term limits and have a third term at New York’s City
Hall? Was he more corrupt than Rahm Emanuel, of Chicago, whose City Hall
covered up the police killing of a young black man? Should we really leave our
judgment of whom we call corrupt to our courts?”
The simplest response to these suggestions is that
neither Bloomberg nor Emanuel, to our knowledge, conspired with
others to commit physical assault. Moreover, if the temptation of power had
proved so intoxicating in a secondary metro area like Providence, what might
have Buddy done if he had run a successful campaign for governor in 1980, or
even achieved his earlier ambition of becoming President?
“I love this city. It’s a very, very saddening
thought to be separated from it,” Buddy told the Associated Press just before
he left for prison.
Hmm…Colluding with city officials as part of a
revenge plot against a private citizen…Turning City Hall into an electoral slot
machine…Turning out not much better, really, than the gangsters and machine
politicians he beat at the start of his road to power…Funny how Buddy went
about proving his love.
Yeah, real funny guy, that Buddy was.