Saturday, January 30, 2016

Photo of the Day: The Providence That Buddy Left Behind

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 like this:

“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, Tomas 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.

While Philip Gourevitch’s retrospective in The New Yorker acknowledged that Buddy was “notoriously thuggish” and “one of America’s most thoroughly corrupt political personalities,” it ultimately disappoints with a wider, not very apropos comparison:

“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.

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