No place like Rhode Island

Well, well, my home state of Rhode Island is in the news again, and for the too-frequent reason: charges of corruption by government officials. What a surprise: Dog bites man. Zzzzzzz.

Now the unwelcome spotlight bathes Providence's controversial mayor, Vincent "Buddy" Cianci - visionary, salesman, architect of the city's current renaissance. And, the feds charge, after a two-year probe, a penny-ante crook who's used his office to enrich himself and his campaign treasure chest.

Buddy says he's innocent, and he may be right. That's for the courts to decide.

But for decades, charges like these have been as much a part of the Ocean State's landscape as its glorious beaches and breathtaking coasts. Disgust with corruption produced major changes in the mid-1930s. But the result fell well short of perfection, as the ensuing years showed.

My own education in Rhode Island governance began in the late 1930s, in the apple-green kitchen of our Edgewood home. Peeking bug-eyed around my grandmother's skirt, listening as an agitated Mr. Dwyer, the neighborhood laundryman, told of voting the day before in nearby Pawtucket, a distinguished part of the industrial Blackstone River Valley and home of the fabled Slater Mill.

No sooner had he slid the voting booth's curtain closed than a beefy hand reached in. A voice growled "I'll take that vote," and the hand pulled the straight Democratic lever. Protests to officials of both parties on poll duty were met with threats, as was a complaint to the cop on duty ("Run along or I'll run you in"). Pawtucket, that year, was for sale.

Other years, too. During the '40s, it seemed as though whenever the splendid Providence Journal or its p.m. confrere, the Evening Bulletin, needed an expose, they'd turn to politics in Pawtucket, or sometimes politics elsewhere in the state. A mother lode if ever there was one.

And if the crime subject wasn't politics, then it was crime itself. For decades, organized crime in New England was run out of guess which little state. The papers said it, the FBI knew it, the police must have had some inkling, and - like crime in politics - nothing of a permanent nature changed for years. It kept on keeping on.

Which brings us to today's era. Corruption charges of one kind or another landed a former governor in jail and pressured two state supreme court justices to resign. During Buddy's previous mayoral stint in the early 1980s, corruption charges swirled around his administration, although he himself was never charged.

Political corruption, of course, neither began in Rhode Island nor is limited to it. Name your state, it's been there. Name your country, it's there, too. But somehow it seems more noticeable in Little Rhody, perhaps because the state's so small that one single scandal instantly spreads, like an ink blot run amok, from border to border.

With all its seamy history, Rhode Island has had its share of distinguished officeholders whose integrity was unimpeachable. The late Sen. John Chafee, once a governor. The retired Sen. Claiborne Pell. Before them, longtime Senators Theodore Francis Green, for whom the state's biggest airport is named, and John O. Pastore, among others.

Each left his mark of distinction, and was cleaner than detergent. But the state's politics is too often surrounded by a different aroma.

So, with a history and present like this, a Rhode Island native must be delighted to live elsewhere, right? If he can consider himself, say, a Marylander or a Californian or a Georgian? Not so fast. Once a Rhode Islander, always a Rhode Islander. I haven't lived in the state for 50 years, and may not for the next 50, but I still adamantly insist I'm a Rhode Islander. That's true of most of us.

There are rational reasons. There's always the possibility of redemption, for one. Addicts often require multiple efforts to kick their addictions, and Rhode Island, in my viewing, has been struggling with its habit for only 60 years or so.

But much of the tie is emotional. Who'd turn his back on a state with such dazzling resources? Splendid universities. A restored capital city. Roger Williams Park, Newport, and the aforementioned beaches. Soaring mountains. (OK, maybe this last is a little exaggeration, but we do have Jerimoth Hill, all 812 feet of it.)

Besides, Rhode Islanders have traditionally been contrarians. After all, Roger Williams didn't leave Massachusetts because he always agreed with everybody.

And, as musical satirist Tom Lehrer wrote half a century ago, "Be it ever so decadent, there's no place like home."

Robert P. Hey is a former Monitor writer and senior editor.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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