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Political Advance Man Joseph Canzeri Dies at 74

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 25, 2004; Page B06

Joseph Wood Canzeri, 74, a fun-loving impresario of special events and a quick, resourceful advance man for some the most powerful people in the world, died of prostate cancer Nov. 19 while at the home of his son in Atlanta. He lived in New York City and Cooperstown, N.Y.

Mr. Canzeri -- "king of the advance men," in the words of Sheila Tate, former press secretary for Nancy Reagan -- left the hotel management business in the early 1960s to work for Nelson A. Rockefeller, whom he served for 16 years. He worked in the Reagan White House for two years, handling travel arrangements and special events for the president and first lady, and then was a Washington public relations consultant for Dan Quayle, maverick presidential candidate H. Ross Perot and numerous other clients, political and otherwise.


Joseph Canzeri arranged events for Vice President Nelson Rockefeller and President Ronald Reagan.

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"I don't know what I do all day," Mr. Canzeri told The Washington Post in 1981, no doubt because his duties were so varied -- from organizing flight plans for Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign to orchestrating a presidential visit, complete with fireworks, to the USS Constitution.

Although an ethics misstep cut short his time in the White House, he remained the consummate advance man in private life, with close ties to the rich and powerful.

Mr. Canzeri was born in Schuylerville, N.Y., to parents who had immigrated to the United States from Sicily in 1900. He grew up in Saratoga, N.Y.

After serving as an Army infantryman during the Korean War, he enrolled at Paul Smith's College of Arts and Sciences in New York, graduating with a two-year degree in hotel and restaurant management in 1955. He then managed restaurant and resort properties, including the White Face Inn in Lake Placid, N.Y., and the Otesaga Inn in Cooperstown.

Rockefeller regularly attended conferences at the Otesaga Inn and met Mr. Canzeri shortly after becoming New York governor in 1959. According to Mr. Canzeri's longtime friend Paul Auchter, the governor was impressed with his ability to fix problems and handle details, large and small.

"Joe knew how to go out and get a pizza at 2 in the morning, that kind of thing," Auchter said.

The governor offered him a job arranging campaign travel in 1962. When Rockefeller won reelection, Mr. Canzeri stayed with him, partly because he had been away so long that he had lost his job at the Otesaga Inn but also because he greatly admired his boss.

A short, plump man with a taste for designer suits, he took pride in accomplishing the impossible. On the campaign trail with the governor late one night in Kansas City, Mo., he broke into a drugstore -- with the help of police -- because his boss had lost his Water Pik. He left the money for a new one on the counter.

His most challenging assignment for the governor, he said, was arranging -- on three days' notice -- a seated dinner in New York City for 3,000 people in honor of the Apollo 9 crew.

He helped organize the funerals of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. It was Mr. Canzeri who came up with the mule and farm wagon that carried the civil rights leader through the streets of Atlanta to his grave. (Some years later, he would arrange Rockefeller's funeral.)

He also managed the 1,700-acre Rockefeller estate in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., where his duties included moving a lot of trees at the whim of the governor. When President Gerald Ford appointed Rockefeller vice president in 1974, Mr. Canzeri came with him to Washington.

After Rockefeller's death in 1979, Mr. Canzeri moved to Los Angeles, where he worked for the Rockefeller family development company. Longtime Reagan aide Michael Deaver, who knew Mr. Canzeri from New York, invited him to join the Reagan presidential campaign as manager of the campaign plane, which, as Deaver noted, can be like managing a hotel.

"He made the Reagans feel comfortable, and Nancy loved him," the former White House deputy chief of staff said.

When Reagan was elected president, Deaver brought Mr. Canzeri into the White House as special assistant to the president, where he arranged foreign trips, state visits and other special events and media spectaculars. When the Iranian hostage crisis ended in 1981, he made arrangements for ceremonies honoring the returned hostages. In addition, he organized an annual White House tennis tournament for Nancy Reagan's program urging Americans to "Just Say No" to drugs.

"He could make a common event into something extraordinary by adding the Canzeri touch to it," Deaver said.

Mr. Canzeri called himself "Deaver's Deaver."

Mr. Canzeri left the Reagan White House in 1982 after an audit found that he had submitted a $700 receipt for payment twice and that he had borrowed $400,000 from Laurence Rockefeller and a California developer at favorable terms to purchase a Georgetown townhouse. Although he maintained that he had done nothing wrong, he resigned to avoid embarrassing the White House. A subsequent investigation exonerated him.

He founded Canzeri Co., a consulting and public relations firm with offices in New York and Washington. He also continued to do special projects for the Reagan White House and the Republican National Committee and organized inaugural activities for President George H.W. Bush in 1989.

He worked as a campaign adviser to GOP vice presidential nominee Dan Quayle in 1988. His less-than-complimentary comments about Quayle and his wife, made after the election, drew the ire of the Quayles and Republican Party stalwarts.

In 1992, he was one of three political professionals -- Hamilton Jordan and Ed Rollins were the other two -- who signed on with Ross Perot's short-lived grass-roots presidential quest.

"I just try to help them with the things they don't know, like never putting the stage in direct sun," he told the Associated Press, explaining his role as director of scheduling and advance.

After receiving a diagnosis of prostate cancer in 1991, he resolved to travel the world. He and his wife visited Morocco, Vietnam, Cambodia and many other places, including the Canzeri ancestral home in Sicily.

Mr. Canzeri's first marriage, to Dorinda Proctor Canzeri, ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 20 years, Tricia Novak Canzeri of New York and Cooperstown; a son from the first marriage, Stuart Somerville Canzeri of Atlanta; and a brother.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company