If you were going to sit around for an evening listening to stories about recent Rhode Island politics, Buddy Cianci is the guy you would want to be the storyteller. He has a seemingly endless supply of stories and can tell them in an entertaining and funny fashion.
That is what it is like to read Cianci’s new book: “Politics and Pasta; How I Prosecuted Mobsters, Rebuilt a Dying City, Advised a President, Dined with Sinatra, Spent Five Years in a Federally Funded Gated Community and Lived to Tell the Tale.” (Not to be confused with former NY Sen. Alfonse D’Amato’s book, “Power, Pasta and Politics”.) Cianci is planning a big roll-out for the book, including a party at the Providence Performing Arts Center on March 15, the day the book hits store shelves.
The book is co-authored with New York writer David Fisher and, if nothing else, Fisher earns his money by having the good sense to let Cianci’s distinctive voice and vocal mannerisms come through on the written page. Listeners familiar with the former Providence mayor from Cianci’s WPRO-AM talk show can almost hear Cianci narrating as they turn the pages.
Say what you will about Cianci — some folks love him; others love to hate him — he has produced a thoroughly enjoyable political memoir. That is how Cianci himself described the work in an interview last week, as a political memoir. It is not an autobiography. He said he purposely avoided a long discourse about his birth and family background — what Holden Caulfield dismissed as “all that David Copperfield kind of crap.”
Cianci is definitely a fascinating, one-of-a-kind political character. Even after spending nearly five years in federal prison on a racketeering charge and pleading guilty to a felony assault, a poll taken just last week showed Cianci with a 44 percent favorability rating to 45 percent unfavorable.
That was a higher score than for former Gov. Donald Carcieri who, if he was known for anything it was being upright and honest. Carcieri got a 41 percent favorable and 49 percent unfavorable ranking. Thirty-five percent of those surveyed would vote for Cianci to be U.S. Senator if he ran against Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse.
The book is definitely Buddy’s side of the story, but it is a remarkably straightforward recount of his political career. To his credit, he does not shy away from the controversies, including the rape charge against him when he was in law school at Marquette University; the incident where he assaulted his ex-wife’s lover, Raymond DeLeo (that allegedly involved hitting the guy with an ashtray and a fireplace log; as Cianci tells it, he didn’t hit him with either object, although he acknowledges threatening DeLeo with the log and throwing the ashtray across the room “in his general direction”) that caused him to resign in his first stint as Providence mayor; the scandals that surrounded that administration, and the racketeering conviction that cost him the amazing political resurrection that returned him to Providence City Hall after his guilty plea to the assault. Cianci steadfastly maintains his innocence in the scandal that came to be known as Plunderdome.
It is, as he says in the opening paragraph, his whole story, “fireplace logs and all.”
But don’t expect confessions to any wrongdoing. He confesses, boasts may be a more accurate term, with almost giddy glee of pulling some fast ones.
Wisely, Cianci does not use the book (as he sometimes uses his radio show) to grind personal axes or gore political oxen. He says his goal was to make the book “fast-moving and funny,” and at that he succeeded.
But Cianci tells the stories in his own terms.
Of the incident with DeLeo, he maintains, “I was guilty of losing my temper. I was guilty of bad judgment and stupidity and even arrogance — but I was not guilty of the serious felonies of which I had been charged.”
He concedes there was corruption in Providence during his first terms as mayor, as there was corruption in other big cities. “There were people in the city selling just about everything that wasn’t nailed down, including manhole covers, Who knew there was a market for stolen manhole covers?” Cianci writes. “But was I involved in this corruption? Until the day I go to my grave I will continue to insist I was not.”
He admits using city jobs as currency to get the political support he needed, to using campaign money for everything from paying for dinners to a personal helicopter to get around the state. “I even admit that I rewarded my friends and supporters and punished my political enemies. But not one time did I put money in my own pocket. I never took a bribe, never took a payment for a political decision. I never received a kickback. Not one cent, not once.”
Of Plunderdome Cianci says, “I went to jail for a crime I didn’t commit and knew nothing about.”
But his explanations can sometimes be confusing if not self-contradictory.
Maintaining his innocence on Plunderdome, he says, “I got in trouble because people believed I knew everything that was going on in the city. They got that idea because that was the impression I wanted them to have … but in fact, the city had as many as 6,000 employees and obviously no one could know everything that was going on.” But less than 20 pages later, he reverts to asserting the opposite impression. Musing on being out of office, Cianci says, “For longer than a decade, nothing had happened in the city without me knowing about it and, usually, having something to say about it.”
But then, another 20 pages later, he says, “…(T)he problem I couldn’t overcome in the end was the belief that I knew everything that went on in my administration on every level. I had been the mayor for so long and was quoted in the media so often that people accepted the fact that nothing happened in Providence unless I knew about it and approved it.
“It was a myth, but people accepted it as reality. In fact, I delegated too much authority to members of my administration and it was that management style that eventually proved to be my demise.”
You would think that, for a man like Cianci, prison would be a life-changing and defining event, but it gets only a portion of one chapter near the end of the book. He told me that might be the subject of another book someday.
You don’t have to like Cianci, or want to vote him back into office, but if you have an interest in Rhode Island politics and the colorful characters that have inhabited it since the mid-1970s you really should read his book. It will keep you turning the pages.