FOR THE FIRST five years of his career with the Providence Journal, Mike Stanton was a bystander on the sidelines of Rhode Islandís politics. Hired as a sportswriter in 1985, his beat was Big East basketball and the Providence College Friars.
But Stanton, who majored in political science at Syracuse University and had previous news reporting experience, got his break when Tom Heslin, the Journalís managing editor/metro, asked him to help with the paperís coverage of the Rhode Island Share and Deposit Indemnity Corporation (RISDIC) crisis of the early 1990s. The collapse of several uninsured credit unions ó and the loss of depositorsí assets ó provided a rich vein for the Journal, which revealed how severe conflicts of interest among some members of the General Assembly were significant factors in the crisis.
Stanton was subsequently part of a team that won a 1994 Pulitzer Prize for exposing pervasive corruption in the Rhode Island courts during the tenure of Thomas Fay, then chief justice of the state Supreme Court. During an interview at the time, Matthew Smith, the local historian and former speaker who helped to engineer Fayís ascent and was then serving as his court administrator, offered the reporter a copy of the famous 1904 magazine article in which Lincoln Steffens wrote, "The political condition of Rhode Island is notorious, acknowledged, and it is shameful. Rhode Island is a state for sale, and cheap." Yet rather than offering the story with any degree of irony, Stanton says, "There was the whole sense of, ĎItís our turn now.í "
The reporter, who subsequently became the head of the Journalís four-person investigative team, may have found his richest subject in former mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr., the mercurial figure who dominated Rhode Islandís political life for most of the last three decades. Stantonís Cianci biography, The Prince of Providence: The True Story of Buddy Cianci, Americaís Most Notorious Mayor, Some Wiseguys, and the Feds (Random House), has an August 5 publication date. The book, a definitive account of the Cianci years, is bound to remain one of the essential tomes of Rhode Islandís political history.
Stanton, a 45-year-old Cranston resident, talked with the Phoenix last week at 729 Hope Street in Providence.
Q: What did Buddy Cianci do to try to prevent your book from being written?
A: When he found out that I had a book contract, he called the publisher of my newspaper, Howard Sutton. I donít think he had any clear plan in mind ó he was just angry and upset ó and he told Howard that he didnít think this was appropriate, that I should be doing this. He wanted Howard, basically, to tell me not to do it. It wasnít really any clearer than that. And Sutton, basically, told him what should be clear to anyone reasonable ó that journalists write books about people they cover all the time.
Woodward and Bernstein wrote a book about Nixon. A Philadelphia Inquirer reporter wrote the book about "Black Hawk Down," which evolved from a series that he wrote for his newspaper. So there was really nothing inappropriate about it. And beyond that ó it was just the usual dance between an author and a politician about access and cooperation; him not wanting me to know certain things or have certain people talk to me; being hot and cold with personally, but I wouldnít say it was anything serious and some of it was expected ó the kind of inherent adversarial relationship that you have between a politician and a journalist.
Q: Are you or your publisher sending a copy of the book to Cianci?
A: I thought about it, but I donít want to do that, because I know heís not happy about the book and I donít want him to think Iím rubbing his face in it. I mean, I know heíll get a copy. He has friends who take care of him and send him reading material. But . . . in my acknowledgement, I did thank him for the access that he did provide, and I did spend a lot of time with him, and it was very interesting.
[In a subsequent conversation, Stanton indicated he had reconsidered not sending the book, but realized he couldnít send it because of a ban on mailing hardcover books to federal prison.]
Q: When did you first meet Buddy Cianci and what was your initial impression of him?
A: Meeting is maybe too strong a word. In the late í80s, I was a sportswriter here at the Journal, and I appeared on a weekly radio sports talk show on WHJJ, called Dick and Dave, to talk about college basketball during the season. And I would come on at six, just as Buddy was coming off, so we would kind of pass each other in the hallway, and Iíd go into the smoke-filled studio and you could still smell his presence in there. And a few years later, in the Valentineís Day of 1990 ó again, meeting is too strong a word ó he was the MC for a March of Dimesí bachelor auction, a charity event. I was single then and I was one of the bachelors being auctioned off. He was the MC and he was making jokes about, "Ah, Mike works for the Providence Journal, my favorite newspaper." But we really didnít know each other.
And then ironically, when I switched over to news in the early í90s, we were focused on covering the RISDIC crisis and the State House, and later we moved into stories about the Supreme Court. So we never really had much interaction. I did a few stories here and there where I would talk to him ó nothing out of the ordinary. And then really when Plunder Dome began, I stared covering that story full-time. Then I started spending a lot of time with him.
Q: In your view, how might Providence be different had Cianci not had such a long grip on City Hall and city politics?
A: Well, I think the 1974 election is really historic, because it broke the grip of the Democratic machine that had held onto City Hall and the state since the Great Depression. And clearly, the machine had lost touch with the people ó the city was dying, and there was a lot of despair ó and something had to change, and Buddy was that change. I think what he really did was hasten whatís happened in American politics everywhere ó kind of the death of the machine as it used to exist. So I think that changed the city a lot, but to say how it would have been different . . . I donít know.
I mean, I talk a lot in the book about how the whole renaissance really occurred, and not to take credit away from Cianci, but to show it was a multi-faceted endeavor ó federal, state, and local officials. But I think that sometimes people get too caught up in trying to assign credit, and I think what Cianci really brought to the renaissance, he sold it. And he also had the vision to appreciate what it could do for the city, even though there were other actors involved in making it happen. He certainly supported it as much as he could when he was in office, and then he was the salesman.
And you have to wonder ó this isnít a good or a bad thing ó but if there was another mayor, would he have been on the Imus show as much as Buddy was? Would he have become this kind of national icon and this kind of roguish character that everybody loved and was fascinated by, and kind of pulled the city along with him?
Q: As you illustrate in your book, Rhode Island has a really rich ó or unsavory ó tradition of political corruption. What effect do you think Cianciís conviction will have on that broader tradition of political corruption?
A: I donít think itíll really have any effect. The thing that I learned about him is that he really reflects ó he didnít make Providence alone, Providence made him ó and he inherited a lot of these corrupt practices and culture, and he certainly deserves his share of the blame for perpetuating it and molding it to his image and for his benefit. But I think that the culture still exists and itís going to be a cyclical thing. Youíre going to go through periods where things are calm and the leaders we have are fairly corrupt-free, but there is always going to be stuff going on, because itís human nature. Itís what makes politics what it is everywhere.
I think the real question is going to be how it affects Providence and its future. And how is the mayor now, Cicilline, going to deal with what heís inherited from Cianci. Howís he going to follow his act? If the economy goes down, things start to struggle, whatís going to happen? Whoís going to get the blame? We saw some of that in Cranston. Traficante left and OíLeary came in and was criticized for kind of fumbling the ball and making things worse, and then he got the blame. So weíll see what happens.
Q: In your book you talk a little about how Cianciís class resentment and difficult relationship with his father might explain some of the quirks of his personality. But beyond that, how do you account for the really jagged contrasts that mark him ó being thuggish on one hand and charming on the other?
A: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is how the judge [Ernest C. Torres] put it. That really does seem to sum him up.
I think heís really just this larger than life figure who kind of embodies on a much grander scale a lot of our own humanity, and thatís why people are so fascinated by him. Because they can identify with him on a lot of different levels, and he really succeeded in selling that kind of lovable roguish image of himself. I mean, he goes on the Imus show, and Imus jokes about his assault of [Raymond] DeLeo and says, "You lit a guy on fire," and Buddy says, "Oh, we light people on fire every night in Providence." Yuk-yuk. He really kind of sold that.
I think heís just a brilliant man. Heís got a huge intellect. Heís a very brilliant politician, as brilliant as any youíd find, and I think when you add in those insecurities ó which you have with any politician ó I think that accounts for some of the behavior weíve seen, both good and bad.
Q: What was the most surprising thing you learned about Buddy Cianci, or otherwise, in the course of researching your book?
A: Thatís a tough one. I think it was just surprising how many stories there are about him and how many lives heís touched. How anywhere you go, even outside of Rhode Island, you can mention his name and people will have a story. Itís remarkable, the reach he had for a mayor.
The early years are really fascinating to me. When I originally set out to do this book, I thought I would focus mostly on Plunder Dome, do a couple of chapters on the early years. But then as I dug into it, I realized how fascinating the early years were ó both because I wanted Providence to be a real character in this book, and I wanted to capture the history and what it was like. And a lot of people just kind of gloss over the early Buddy stuff or have never really written it. Like the story of him as a prosecutor and the priest [when Cianci proved wrong an alibi provided for mob boss Raymond L.S. Patriarca]. I was fascinated by that story and itís never really been written. It was written in the Journal at the time it happened, and it was a breaking news story during the [Patriarca] trial. But beyond that itís a wonderful story, and there are so many wonderful stories.
I found that a lot of people I talked to who are old-time Rhode Islanders will say, "I knew this about Buddy, but I never knew that." That kind of makes me feel good ó that people that know a lot are still learning things from this book.
Q: How much responsibility do the people of Providence bear, in your view, for the kind of corruption that occurred during Cianciís two tenures?
A: Well, I know that there are people who have criticized members of the business community for being enablers, if they didnít speak out or stand up to him. But thatís a tough thing to do if you have to exist in a system. I tried not to be judgmental about that, but point out some of the dilemmas that people faced about whether to cooperate.
Certainly, in any political system, the people bear responsibility for not being involved and active in their government, and then you get what you pay for. On the other hand, you canít just be self-righteous, and you can understand why people would get discouraged and not want to get involved, or not want to fight the system.
Q: How do you find it going back to daily reporting after putting this big story in a broad context?
A: Itís kind of a relief, actually. Itís nice just to kind of focus in on the day in and day out stuff. You know, in Rhode Island, thereís never a shortage of material, even without Buddy.
Ian Donnis can be reached at email@example.com
Issue Date: August 1 - 7, 2003
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