Vincent “Buddy” Cianci died in January. But, suddenly, he’s the future — in more ways than one.
Cianci is the pivotal figure in “Crimetown,” a hot podcast whose debut season focuses on the culture of crime and political corruption in Rhode Island’s capital. Created by Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier, the series brings a bygone era — the wiseguys, the gangster drama, the garish Ocean State accents — back to life on digital audio. Podcasting has become the hippest format for long-form journalism, and recordings of juicy characters like Cianci are its magic ingredient.
But Cianci’s reign, which ended in 2002, also holds a political lesson that’s newly urgent as Donald Trump’s presidency begins: When somebody posing as a reformer sweeps into office with ethical question marks and a cast of dodgy allies, you shouldn’t be shocked when bad stuff happens.
Cianci was a former prosecutor who tried New England mob boss Raymond Patriarca as an accessory to murder. He failed, but the publicity fueled Cianci’s 1974 run for mayor as a Republican anticorruption candidate.
Drain the swamp? As if. Cianci got help from the Democratic machine and the Patriarca goons — including a reputed hit man — who worked for it. As Cianci muses in a tape excerpted in “Crimetown”: “Well, I didn’t sell myself out, but, you know, you have to make arrangements.”
The former prosecutor ended up overseeing a kleptocracy. The current president-elect, meanwhile, has laid the foundation for personal graft on a massive scale. A sprawling real estate business with mysterious debts. A willingness to profit off foreign dignitaries’ desire to please America’s new leader. A belief that conflicts of interest just aren’t an issue for a president. But once national Republican leaders fell in line behind Trump, they made peace with the kind of ethical lapses they’d criticize in Russia or China or Equatorial Guinea.
Well before Trump’s election, though, the age of good-government reform was ending. An emerging school of self-styled “political realists” in academia traces the woes of our political system to the decline of legislative earmarks and smoke-filled caucus rooms — changes that sapped party leaders of their power to keep members in line. Citizens United and other court decisions shredded the post-Watergate system of campaign-finance restrictions. Lately, the Supreme Court has reined in federal corruption probes. Lower courts have taken note, as a ruling this week in the Massachusetts probation case shows.
Still, nothing discredits the cause of ethical government like candidates who promise to fight corruption and then revel in it when they win.
“Hiring people who make no claim to be rehabilitated and have long criminal records when you’re claiming to be a reform, anti-Mafia mayor is hypocritical and suboptimal personnel policy,” the former head of Providence’s parks department, James Diamond, tells “Crimetown” — in the greatest understatement of the dawning podcast age. “Basically, you do not hire professional murderers. Period.”
OK, Trump’s personnel policies aren’t quite so egregious. Still, the commonalities between Trump and Cianci are a recurring theme in “Crimetown.” Buddy was a narcissist, just like Trump, a former City Hall aide recalls. “Buddy knew how to make a deal,” says Joseph Paolino, another former Providence mayor.
But there’s a price to running a city — or a nation — on handshake deals, instead of rules and norms. Cianci’s rule only furthered the view that everybody’s a crook, everything’s a lie, and nothing’s ever going to get better.
Post-Cianci leaders have been trying for years to dispel that cynicism and make Rhode Island more like normal states. It’d be ironic for Rhode Island, and bad for everyone else, if the rest of the country gets Ciancified instead.