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Jim Traficant: The Youngstown Prophet

No national politician of his era spoke more forcefully to what have become the concerns of our own than Jim Traficant.

Rep. James Traficant, D-Ohio on March, 1996. (Photo by Laura Patterson/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

“A prophet,” said Mgr. Ronald Knox, “is one who speaks out. He must not wrap up his meaning; he must not expect success.”

Like most prophets, Jim Traficant, the legendary Ohio congressman who would have turned 80 next month but for his death in a tractor accident seven years ago, went mostly without honor in his country. He was expelled from the House of Representatives in 2002 and imprisoned for seven years (during which he refused visitors) after being convicted of a number of dubious sounding felonies, one of which involved employing congressional staff on his farm in Ohio and the houseboat which he made his Washington, D.C., residence.

In his lifetime Traficant had few allies in the Democratic party and no following outside his beloved Ohio (unless the handful of journalists who delighted in his ready wit and bizarre personal appearance count). But there is probably no national politician of his era who spoke more forcefully to what would become the concerns of our own. He opposed drugs, free trade, the decline of manufacturing, eviction, our needless and cruel embargo on Cuba, the banks, Wall Street, euthanasia, and, above all, abortion. (He also supported, perhaps to the horror of some of his contemporary admirers, racial preference in college admissions.)

Traficant was born in Youngstown, Ohio, to a working-class Catholic family in 1941. He played quarterback at the University of Pittsburgh with Mike Ditka and was even drafted by the Steelers in 1963. Instead of playing professional football, he became what we would now refer to as a “community organizer” and spent many years working with nonprofits and colleges in the Youngstown area on issues such as drug and alcohol addiction before being elected sheriff of Mahoning County in 1981.

It was in this office that he made national headlines when he refused to evict families whose homes had been foreclosed upon following the collapse of the steel industry. We are all accustomed to rhetoric addressing such issues from politicians; direct, sweeping action of the kind taken by Traficant—remarkably without regard to electoral considerations, entrenched interests, or constitutional niceties—is comparatively rarer. In doing so he made enemies of both the banks and organized crime. His reward was a trial for having allegedly received bribes in 1981. He defended himself and was acquitted, becoming the only person in American history to have won his own RICO case. (The man on whose evidence the charges had been brought, a petty criminal and associate of the Cleveland mobster “Big Ange” Lonardo, died last week at the age of 93.)

After defeating Washington, it was probably fitting that Traficant should go there himself. After beating a milquetoast Republican incumbent, he would go on to win eight more elections without attracting meaningful challengers. In Washington, Traficant found himself with few reliable friends at a time when politics was more favorable to socially conservative populists. Though he did not go out of his way to alienate Democratic colleagues (he voted no, for example, on each of the articles of impeachment brought against Bill Clinton), he found his hand forced on the issue of abortion, and helped to re-elect a pro-life Republican speaker in 2001. (There is probably no more telling illustration of how sordid Washington is than the fact that his would-be valorous cross-party gesture was in support of Dennis Hastert.) This decision left Traficant effectively independent, stripped of all committee assignments and almost totally without influence upon congressional debate.

I say “almost totally,” for his considerable gifts as an orator ensured that he would always at least receive a hearing. Like Donald Trump’s later, Traficant’s oratory is memorable without having any antecedents. He did not speak in polished classical phrases, but he had a natural Falstaffian gift for imagery and invective. A sample must suffice:

Unbelievable. What’s next? Rectal Diaries? Men are dropping like flies in America from prostate cancer and Broadway is promoting vaginal titillation. Beam me up! I advise all New York men to sleep on their stomachs, and I yield back all the STDs on the East Coast….

Mr. Speaker, Medicare trust funds lost another $4 billion. Payroll contributions keep going down. Maybe it’s the type of jobs that are being created. Check this out: How about a handkerchief folder, a drawstring knotter, a hooker inspector, a pantyhose crotch closer machine operator supervisor, a muff winder, a fur blower, a wizzer operator, a brassiere cup molder fitter. Evidently, Mr. Speaker, when American workers become muff winding brassieras fitters, and fur blowing wizzer operators, the Medicare trust fund will continue to lose money….

This president has gone from Disney to Spielberg, Looney Tunes to outer space, and he’s not finished yet. I predict that his next production will be a Stephen King thriller….

Not all of what Traficant said is worth remembering. Embittered by his long experience in prison and what he imagined (perhaps not wrongly) as persecution at the hands of the Internal Revenue Service, Traficant’s populism took a hard-right turn after his release from prison. And whatever his motivation at the time, his defense in 1990 of Arthur Rudolph, the pioneer of Nazi rocketry recruited by the Office of Strategic Service and later denaturalized and stripped of various honors after his past was discovered, puts him in very bad company today. (One wonders, though, why Traficant deserves more blame than our own intelligence services, who thought nothing of recruiting Rudolph, keeping him employed for decades, and heaping him with medals from NASA as well as other awards despite, indeed, because of their knowledge of his wartime activities.)

What lessons can be drawn from Traficant’s career? The first, I think, is that bold positions matter more than rhetoric, and that direct action matters more than any position, however clearly staked out. It is one thing to say (for example) that payday lending is among the great evils of our age; it is quite another to take matters into your own hands, as Traficant did while serving as sheriff. Another is that indifference to party unity is a great virtue in any politician, as is recognizing the difference between merely prudential questions (e.g., private school vouchers, on which his record was wholly in line with that of other Democrats) and those of a purely moral character. Above all, he should be revered for his willingness to be nothing more and nothing less than the representative of his district, to embody the aspirations, fears, attitudes, and faith of the people of Mahoning and Trumbull Counties. His record should be a model to anyone who serves in the House. (That of his sometime ally Bart Stupak, the Michigan Democrat who sacrificed his long and principled career to keep funding for abortion out of the Affordable Care Act, is another.)

Whatever else can be said for him, Traficant left behind no movement, no faction or meaningful program. Nor did he accomplish any of the great tasks he set for himself in Washington. NAFTA passed over his objections and, whatever the middling efforts of the last administration, is largely with us today. Our trade relations with China were fundamentally remade despite his eloquence, to the benefit of its leader (and the immiseration of the poor in both countries). Drug addiction is more of a crisis now than it was in the 1970s when Traficant lectured on the issue at community centers and college campuses and police academies. Abortion remains legal in all 50 states.

Does this lessen his achievement? I give the last word again to Mgr. Knox:

Does the prophet do good? No such promise is made him when he sets out with his message. His task is to deliver that message to the men of his time, whether they hear or refuse him a hearing. It may be, the stark language he talks to them, the unconventional gestures by which he tries to thrust it home, will produce a reaction, and wed them all the more firmly to their old ways of thought. There are one or two terrible passages in the Old Testament which almost seem to imply that the prophet is sent out, not to inspire repentance, but to redouble the guilt of his unbelieving audience.

Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp magazine and a contributing editor at The American Conservative.

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