There may be more Joe Canzeri stories around the White House than unmatched china. Once Canzeri directed a Pennsylvania Avenue traffic jam in his white tie and tails. At Anwar Sadat's funeral, he stood in front of a bus of U.S. congressmen, announcing -- to Egyptian guards carrying machine guns -- that it wasn't moving until all were aboard. In lighter moments, he's thrown a dessert pastry at White House deputy chief of staff Michael K. Deaver.
And last January, this details man made arrangements for the Iranian hostages to return to Washington aboard special government planes. All were dramatically marked with "United States of America."
"They're committed," said a State Department official.
"Well, uncommit them," replied Canzeri.
"We can't do that," said the State Department official.
"READ MY LIPS -- THESE ARE ENGLISH WORDS," said Canzeri. "UNCOMMIT THEM."
Which is his motto, often announced halfway through someone else's sentence that begins with: "Would it be possible to . . . ?" "Done" shouts the Milo Minderbinder of the Reagan administration, Mr. Fixit Gone to Washington. In fact, Canzeri cries "DONE" so much that Mexican President Lopez Portillo's aides, who worked with him during the Cancun summit, picked it up themselves. "Hecho!" they say.
Canzeri is an assistant to the president and executive assistant to the deputy chief of staff, a murky title not made any more clear when he says: "I don't know what I do all day." In fact, he is the man who organizes presidential travel and makes sure the White House schedules work. This month, he'll begin additional scheduling duties for Nancy Reagan, taking over -- at least for the time being -- the job of East Wing staff director held by Peter McCoy. McCoy is to become undersecretary of commerce for travel and tourism.
Canzeri says he is "very fond" of Nancy Reagan, adding that he doesn't mind carrying her coat and purse. "You do anything you have to do," he says. This was also one of McCoy's more publicized duties. "That really never did bother me," McCoy says. "People used to think it did, but it really didn't. This was her thing, and there were times when she felt awkward holding it. So what the heck? I don't have any identity crisis."
Canzeri is a native of Schuylerville, N.Y., and something of a contrast to McCoy, a former president of Sotheby Parke Bernet and a homesick ex-resident of Beverly Hills' lush Coldwater Canyon. Both men favor elegant, precisely tailored clothes (on a recent day, Canzeri had on a Southwick pin-striped suit, Hermes tie, Cartier watch and Gucci loafers), but Canzeri comes from the cowboy breed of political advance men who live out of suitcases and on credit cards.
He learned the art of advancing as a longtime aide to the late Nelson Rockefeller, a man he revered. Canzeri still plays on the road as intently as he works, famous for his enthusiasm toward the opposite sex. On the Reagan campaign plane, he was well-known for ogling women as they walked down the aisle. At the White House, he grates on some who consider him abrasive. Still, insiders say Nancy Reagan likes him.
He is 51 ("He could pass for 14," observes a senior White House aide) and is 5 feet, 6 1/2 inches tall. His stature causes some administration secretaries to call him "Tattoo," the name of the midget on ABC's "Fantasy Island." Deaver, who hit the sidewalk to avoid the gunfire in the presidential assassination attempt, later saw Canzeri and told him: "Don't worry Joe, you wouldn't have had to duck."
Canzeri has been likened to an Italian leprechaun. He has dark hair and big ears. Early on in the campaign, the president referred to him as "Tony Canzoni."
"He was very embarrassed," recalls Canzeri. "He said I could call him Regan."
Canzeri is also one of the administration's producers, a creative director who sees much of life as a media photo opportunity. It was Canzeri who helped produce the president's August visit to the aircraft carrier USS Constellation, a technicolor extravaganza in the Pacific Ocean that featured F14 Tomcats performing acrobatics and dropping bombs. Some days before the event, Canzeri excitedly told a reporter about the presentation.
"I hope it's in the morning so we can make the deadlines," the reporter said.
Canzeri looked at the reporter as if he were a babe in the woods. "Why do you think we're doing this?" the reporter recalls he replied.
"He's an artist of the presentation," says James Cannon, a former Rockefeller aide who's now chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker.
Another time, when Canzeri was with then-Gov. Rockefeller on his 1969 trip to Latin America, he noticed that Rockefeller was on a balcony ready to pose for pictures with Francois Duvalier, the Haitian dictator. Realizing that this was politically unwise, Canzeri quickly pushed a reporter and Rockefeller's doctor between the two men.
In Washington, Canzeri lives with his 12-year-old son, Stuart. He is divorced, drives a Mercedes, but had to give up his Alfa Romeo convertible because he says he didn't have the parking space. He dates stunning women -- when he has the time -- but some friends worry that he's lonely. He just bought a townhouse in Georgetown.
"You're not going to put in my address, are you?" he says.
Because women will bother him?
"They should be so lucky," he replies.
Canzeri, like many who worked for Rockefeller, was handsomely paid. For 16 years, he was campaign advance man, personal assistant, even supervisory tree-mover at Pocantico Hills, the New York family estate where Rockefeller changed the landscape as the spirit moved him.
"Nelson never thought small," Canzeri says. "There was no such word as 'no.' One time, I was instructed to do some selective clearing -- removing trees and clearing vistas. It was a pretty extensive project. A couple of weeks later, I got a call. They said, 'Could you come up to the house for a minute?' So I said, 'Sure,' and sitting in front of the house in a station wagon were Nelson and his brother David. 'Get in,' they said. So I got in the back seat, and David was driving, and we were traveling along through the woodlands, and David was saying, 'Why did you cut this? Why did you cut that? Why did you open that up?' And Nelson wasn't saying anything, which was rare. And I said, 'Well, I guess I took off a little more than I should have.' And this went on for an hour and a half."
Canzeri, a discreet aide, knew that saying "Nelson made me do it" was not the way to remain employed. "I went home and shook my head," he sighs.
Another time, late one night in Kansas City, Rockefeller couldn't find his Water Pik. "He had dental work that debris would catch in sometimes," recalls Hugh Morrow, the former Rockefeller spokesman. "So with the aide of the local police, Joe broke into a drugstore, got the Water Pik and left the money on the counter -- including the local sales tax."
During Rockefeller's presidential campaign, Morrow says that "Joe was our bulwark against a reputation of incompetence. You can lose the candidate's bag, but lose a reporter's bag and instantly, the whole campaign becomes 'lackadaisical, listless.' Joe realized this. So we were always described as a 'well-oiled political machine.' It was absolute nonsense."
During the 1968 New York City garbage strike, Rockefeller was once in all-night negotiations with the union. By 5 a.m., the group at his West 55th Street office was tired and hungry. Canzeri broke a kitchen lock at the nearby Gotham Hotel, then made bacon, scrambled eggs, coffee and toast for the group of 30. He adds, with relish, that the strike was settled soon after.
He loves good food, and is famous for his "pizza flights" aboard the Rockefeller campaign plane. Another time when Rockefeller visited the former shah of Iran, Canzeri put himself in charge of bringing back the local cuisine. "Operation Caviar," says Morrow dryly. "With Joe, you never ran out of food or champagne."
When Martin Luther King was shot, the Rockefellers were asked to help with the arrangements. Canzeri went to Atlanta, and by several accounts, ran the funeral. He demurs and says he ran "parts of it." It is also advance-man lore that Canzeri was the one who found the mule and cart that carried King's coffin through Atlanta. But again Canzeri demurs, not denying but not confirming, saying he doesn't want to talk about the personal work he did for the Rockefellers. "There's a lot of myth around me," he says.
Eleven years after King's funeral, he ran Nelson Rockefeller's funeral. Afterward, 15-year-old Nelson Jr. came to Canzeri's house on the estate. They took two horses out of the barn, walking with them up to the pasture. "Let's talk about Dad," Canzeri recalls the younger Nelson saying.
The older Rockefeller never made it to the White House he wanted so badly, but Canzeri, in July 1980, was on his way. That's when he joined the Reagan campaign, brought in by Mike Deaver who remembered him from the governors' conferences Reagan and Rockefeller had attended over the years. The Rockefeller team had originally spotted Canzeri while he was the manager at the Upstate New York resorts they frequented for business. He had received a degree in hotel administration from Paul Smith's College in Saranak Lake, N.Y.
The son of an antique dealer, Canzeri has antique reproductions in his small, windowless box in the West Wing, which is still full of cachet because it's across the thickly carpeted hall from the Oval Office. He spends much of his time on the phone in 15- and 30-second conversations, perpetually involved in arrangements for hotel rooms, microphones, food, security, champagne. He makes the calls as fast as he gets them, seeming to enjoy the rhythm of the push buttons and blinking lights. It is impossible to have more than a three-minute conversation with him.
As for the differences between scheduling for both Nancy and Ronald Reagan, Canzeri observes that "a man can go with a suit and black tie and be okay for a week. A man can take a shower and wash his hair and be ready. With a woman, you have to build a little more time into the schedule."
But as he's said to a friend at the White House: "After 100 Rockefellers, two Reagans are easy."