Respect? Not a little bit

The ex-sheriff’s self-destructive streak did him in.

By Bertram de Souza

From this day forth, legitimate journalists will use the phrase “who spent more than seven years in federal prison” when reporting on former Congressman James A. Traficant Jr.

Even if Traficant’s prison artwork starts selling like hotcakes on eBay, or he becomes a national radio talk show host and attracts the black helicopters crowd, or dons a white robe and sandals and walks the streets preaching the good word, he will still be an ex-con.

That is now the sum total of his political life.

Deep in the recesses of his complicated — corrupt? — mind is a conversation he had many years ago with a journalist. It was early in his tenure in Congress, and he had stopped in The Vindicator’s advertising department. While there, he asked to speak to this writer.

The conversation was brief. After some small talk, Traficant made this statement: “I don’t care if you ever like me, but one day you’ll respect me.”

To which this writer replied, “Congressman, respect is earned.”

James A. Traficant Jr. will go to his grave knowing that the thinking people of the Mahoning Valley have no respect for him.

His family and friends will love him, the usual hangers-on will urge him to keep fighting his enemies, real and imagined, and he may even hear a voice or two of reason.

But the words, “I respect you, Jim,” will not be spoken to him. Not by people whose opinions matter.

And that is the final chapter of the saga of one of the most brilliant politicians in the history of this region.

Traficant, who was released from the federal penitentiary today after seven years and a month, will forever be the member of Congress who fell from political grace, the man who used his public position for personal gain, the folk hero who so blinded residents that even a conviction by a jury in federal court on 10 criminal counts was not proof enough of guilt.

Three decades ago, when Traficant was the head of the anti-drug program in Mahoning County and visited high schools, he would warn students of the dangers of drug and alcohol use and offer this advice: Don’t indulge in destructive behavior.

If only he had remembered that admonition when he went to Congress in 1985 after defeating Republican incumbent Lyle Williams. Traficant’s 1984 campaign for the House of Representatives was born on the day the year before that a jury in federal court in Cleveland returned a not guilty verdict against him.

The then-sheriff of Mahoning County had successfully defended himself against federal criminal charges of racketeering, bribery and tax evasion. He was accused by the government of taking bribes from organized crime figures during his race for sheriff. The jury bought his explanation that he took the money from the mobsters to keep it from being given to his opponents.

With that incomprehensible court victory, he became Sheriff Buford Pusser, the main character in the hit movie, “Walking Tall.” His life began to imitate someone else’s art.

When he launched his campaign for Congress, he became Rocky Balboa, and the movie’s theme song, “Eye of the Tiger,” was the rallying cry for his supporters.

Thus began the journey of his destruction. He took to heart the praise from his growing legions of supporters, hangers-on and yes-men.

Traficant’s win over Williams established his credentials as one of the most naturally talented politicians in this region. He went to Washington with all the promise of a long and fruitful career — similar to that of the Valley’s most famous member of Congress, Michael Kirwan.

But there was one difference: Traficant had a huge target on his back — as a result of his embarrassing the FBI, the IRS, and the U.S. Justice Department with his implausible victory in his 1983 criminal trial.

Despite that, his behavior on Capitol Hill suggested that he believed he was indestructible.

While his legislative record was more fluff than substance, he did deliver federal dollars and other assistance to his congressional district.

However, that seemed to be the sidebar of his career. He wanted to be in a spotlight, but did not want to do the heavy lifting that is the mark of an accomplished legislator. Instead, he played the court jester. The way he dressed, the speeches he gave on the floor of the House, the issues that he embraced and even his presidential campaign bespoke a desire to stand out in the crowd.

He went after the federal government with a vengeance, but there was just one problem: He was arrogant in his belief that he was untouchable, and so he played fast and loose with the law.

Traficant could not walk the straight and narrow, and that was his undoing.

Thus, he returns home a convicted felon who served time in the federal penitentiary. And when all the press attention dies down, and when his friends and supporters have had their fill of him, he will be left to wonder where he would be today had he not been so self-destructive.

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