'The Prince of Providence': super pol and super crook

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A substantial majority of my long, happy career in newspapering has been devoted to stories that vilify miscreants and malefactors in public life. That's why I have a particular interest in books such as The Prince of Providence: The True Story of Buddy Cianci, America's Most Notorious Mayor, Some Wiseguys, and the Feds, by Mike Stanton (Random House, 384 pages, $24.95). The vast majority of men and women I have known in politics and government, I believe, have been honorable. But the brigands are more interesting. And, of course, there's a special satisfaction in shining a newspaper's bright spotlight on their misdeeds -- though I fear that many citizens view this as an exercise in misguided piety.

Vincent A. Cianci Jr. -- the name is pronounced See-ann-see -- was born in 1941 to a doting father, a successful proctologist. He went to law school and returned to Providence in 1969 as an assistant state's attorney general, prosecuting, among other matters, public corruption.

Acceptance of contempt for the law, Stanton relates, was in the great Rhode Island and Providence tradition. He traces it back to the 1630s, when the state was a haven for those driven away by Puritans -- who called it "Rogue's Isle" -- and other religious and doctrinal oppressions. In the industrial revolution, Providence became immensely rich through the entrepreneurial zeal and trading acumen of old Protestant money and the exploitation of immigrant workers from Ireland, Italy and elsewhere. In many ways, the life and economy of the city in the mid-20th Century was dominated by Raymond L. S. Patriarca, the Mafia don known as "the mayor of Providence," though he held no public office.

An early section of the book is the story of Cianci prosecuting Patriarca for graft -- with rich, full details -- a perjurious priest and other lush incidentals. Here and throughout the book, Stanton delivers a great deal of specific material on the intricacies of deal making, ghost payrollers, kickbacks, contract skimming and other political high art forms.

By the early 1970s, Cianci was well on his way into ward, street and backroom politics, soon becoming, as Stanton writes, "The Buddy Cianci of insider deals and cash in envelopes, of political hacks and mobsters on the city payroll. This was the ruthless Buddy who took a masochistic glee in crushing his opponents and settling old scores, the dark Buddy who had been accused in law school of raping a woman at gunpoint."

Cianci had two Providential mayoralties. He was first elected in 1974, a 33-year-old upstart Republican in a Democratic machine city. There was lots of controversy, but his first downfall was the result of personal scandal, not public peculation. A local contractor whom Cianci accused of improper involvement with his estranged wife came to the mayor's house. Cianci beat him very badly and demanded a payoff of $500,000. Cianci pleaded guilty to assault charges in 1984, was given a suspended prison sentence and was forced to resign as mayor.

But Buddy bounced back.

By 1990 he was running again, still as a Republican, in a split field. He won by a hair's breadth 317-vote margin. By the early '90s, Providence was enjoying a downtown renaissance of impressive ambition and success, which Cianci celebrated from the rooftops. He subsequently was re-elected, the last time -- his sixth term -- in 1998, becoming the longest serving mayor in the city's rich history.

Stanton was one of an investigative team at the Providence Journal who exposed a great deal of brazen graft in city and state government, earning a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for investigative reporting on judicial corruption. The turning point for Cianci's career came that year with the arrival in town of Dennis Aiken, one of the FBI's top graft hunters. He had served there years before, had written The FBI Field Guide to Public Corruption and pursued corruption with a single-minded fervor. He dubbed his campaign "Operation Plunder Dome" -- an allusion to City Hall's towering architecture.

Cianci was indicted in April 2001 on 97 counts and in June of the following year was convicted of racketeering conspiracy and sentenced to five years and four months in prison. He's serving his time in New Jersey.

His second reign ended.

Stanton is an exhaustive reporter. He usually writes clean, direct sentences, fashioned into well-balanced, short paragraphs. Facts fill his pages. This is exemplary newspaper journalism -- though occasionally thoughtlessly sloppy. (What is "masochistic glee"?) But in an elusive and to me almost maddening way, it fails as a book.

Why?

First off, he suffocates his readers. The consequence is a lack of focus, the absence of a statuesque sense of saga. The story that lurks behind this mountain of minutiae never effectively stands up to declare itself. Cianci is recounted to be a man of phenomenal, irresistible energies, appetites, charms and artfulness. Dozens of other intricate players inhabit the drama in lesser roles. But none, including the towering anti-hero, comes alive -- at least not to my ear and eye.

The great rogues I have known and known of are towering, charismatic figures because of their conflation of despicable corruption and enchanting humanity. Philadelphia's Frank L. Rizzo was a hero to more people than those who found him a monster. In Jersey City, elder citizens' eyes still well with tears at the mention of archcrook Mayor Frank Hague. The list can go on and on. There is immense irony in that and -- somewhere deep down -- a large and fascinating and consequential truth. The promise of The Prince of Providence is that it might unravel that truth. It does not.

But for anyone addicted to true-graft adventures -- an affliction to which I freely confess -- it is still a fascinating compilation of vivid yarns. And, at whatever depth or shallowness, it's a fulsome recitation of the vulnerability of the public interest and the public purse to the private greed of slick pols.

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