Jim Traficant: The Youngstown Prophet
Rep. James Traficant, D-Ohio in March 1996. (Photo by Laura Patterson / CQ Appeal via Getty Images)
“A prophet,” said Mgr. Ronald Knox, “pronouncing himself. He must not wrap up his meaning; He mustn’t expect success. “
Like most prophets, Jim Traficant, the legendary Ohio Congressman who would have turned 80 the next month without his death in a tractor accident seven years ago, was largely without honor in his country. He was expelled from the House of Representatives in 2002 and jailed for seven years (during which time he refused to attend) after being convicted of a number of dubious-sounding offenses, one of which created and employed Congressional staff on his farm in Ohio Houseboat concerned made its residence in Washington, DC.
In his lifetime, Traficant had few allies in the Democratic Party and no following outside of his beloved Ohio (unless counting the handful of journalists delighted with his wit and bizarre personality). But there is probably no national politician of his day who spoke more forcefully on what would become our own concerns. He opposed drugs, free trade, the decline of manufacturing, evictions, our unnecessary and cruel embargo on Cuba, the banks, Wall Street, euthanasia, and most importantly, abortion. (He also, perhaps to the horror of some of his contemporary admirers, supported racial preference in college admission.)
Traficant was born in Youngstown, Ohio in 1941 into a working Catholic family. He played quarterback with Mike Ditka at the University of Pittsburgh and was even drafted by the Steelers in 1963. Instead of playing professional football, he became what we wanted. Now known as the Community Organizer, he worked for many years with nonprofits and colleges in the Youngstown area on issues such as drug and alcohol addiction before becoming sheriff of the Mahoning County was chosen.
It was in this office that he made national headlines when he refused to evict families whose homes had been closed after the steel industry collapsed. We are all used to rhetorically addressing such issues from politicians. Direct, comprehensive measures such as those taken by Traficant – remarkably without regard to election considerations, entrenched interests or constitutional subtleties – are comparatively less common. In doing so, he made both banks and organized crime his enemies. His reward was an alleged bribery trial in 1981. He defended himself and was acquitted. He was the only one in American history to have won his own RICO case. (The man on whose evidence the indictment was brought, a petty criminal who worked for Cleveland gangster “Big Ange” Lonardo, died last week at the age of 93.)
After defeating Washington, it was likely appropriate for Traficant to go there itself. After defeating a reigning Republican, he won eight more elections without attracting major challengers. In Washington, Traficant found himself with few reliable friends at a time when politics was more favorable to socially conservative populists. Although he made no effort to alienate Democratic peers (for example, he voted no on every impeachment lawsuit against Bill Clinton), he found his hand forced on the issue of abortion and helped resuscitate Elect a Lifelike Republican Spokesperson in 2001. (There is probably no more telling example of how filthy Washington is than the fact that his brave, bipartisan gesture supported Dennis Hastert.) That decision left Traficant virtually independent, stripped of all committee duties, and almost no influence on the Congressional debate.
I say “almost entirely” because his considerable gifts as a speaker ensured that he always received at least one hearing. Like Donald Trumps later, Traficant’s oratorio is unforgettable without any history. He did not speak in polished classical phrases, but he had a natural Falstaffian aptitude for images and abuse. One sample must be sufficient:
Unbelievable. What’s next? Rectal diaries? Men are falling like flies from prostate cancer in America and Broadway is promoting vaginal titration. Beam me up! I advise all New York men to sleep on their stomachs, and I return all STDs on the East Coast.
Mr. Spokesman, Medicare trust funds lost another $ 4 billion. Payrolls continue to decline. Maybe it’s the kind of jobs that are being created. Check this out: how about a handkerchief folder, a drawstring knot, a hooker inspector, a pantyhose machine operator, a sleeve winder, a fur blower, a wizzer operator, a brassiere for making bras. Obviously, Mr. Speaker, the Medicare Trust Fund will continue to lose money as American workers become bras and fur-blowers.
This president went from Disney to Spielberg, Looney Tunes to space, and he’s not done yet. I expect his next production to be a Stephen King thriller.
Not everything Traficant said is worth remembering. Traficant populism, exasperated by its long experience in prison and what it (perhaps not wrongly) imagined as persecution by the Internal Revenue Service, took a hard right turn upon his release from prison. And whatever his motivation at the time, his defense of Arthur Rudolph in 1990, the pioneer of Nazi missile technology recruited by the Office of Strategic Service and later denatured and deprived of various honors after the discovery of his past, brings him in today very bad company. (One wonders, however, why Traficant deserves more guilt than our own secret services, who thought nothing of recruiting Rudolph, employing him for decades and, despite all the medals, showering him with medals from NASA and other awards because of their knowledge of his war activities.)
What lessons can be learned from Traficant’s career? The first, I think, is that bold positions are more important than rhetoric, and that direct action is more important than any position, even if it is clearly delineated. It is one thing to say (for example) that payday loans are among the great evils of our time; Taking matters into your own hands, like Traficant did as a sheriff, is something completely different. Another reason is that indifference to the unity of the party is a great virtue for any politician, as is recognizing the difference between purely regulatory issues (e.g., vouchers for private schools where his records were completely in line with those of other Democrats ) and those of a pure politician moral character. Most of all, he should be revered for his willingness to be nothing more or less than his district’s representative to embody the aspirations, fears, attitudes, and beliefs of the people of Mahoning and Trumbull counties. His record should be a role model for everyone who serves in the home. (That of his occasional ally, Bart Stupak, the Michigan Democrat who sacrificed his long and principled career to keep abortion funding out of the Affordable Care Act is another.)
Whatever can be said for him, Traficant left no movement, group or program of meaning. Nor did he complete any of the major tasks that he set himself in Washington. NAFTA ignored his objections and, regardless of the mediocre efforts of the previous administration, is largely with us today. Our trade relations with China, despite his eloquence, have been fundamentally redesigned for the benefit of its leader (and the impoverishment of the poor in both countries). Drug addiction is more of a crisis today than it was in the 1970s when Traficant lectured on the subject at community centers, colleges, and police academies. Abortion remains legal in all 50 states.
Does this reduce its performance? I give Mgr the last word again. Knox:
Does the Prophet Do Good? No such promise is made to him when he sets off with his message. His job is to get the message across to the men of his day, whether they hear him or refuse to hear him. It may be that the stark language he uses to speak to them, the unconventional gestures he uses to bring them home, provoke a reaction and tie them all the more firmly to their old ways of thinking. There are a terrible passage or two in the Old Testament that almost seem to imply that the prophet is sent not to arouse repentance but to double the guilt of his disbelieving audience.
Matthew Walther is editor of The lamp Magazine and a contributing editor at The American Conservative.