First a confession: This writer has not read James A. Traficant Jr.’s book, does not intend to read it, and certainly won’t give the ex-con the pleasure of knowing that one of his most ardent critics is now taking him seriously.
The book is a compilation of Traficant’s one-minute speeches delivered from the well of the House of Representatives during his 17-year tenure as this region’s congressman — without the criticism they triggered from his detractors and serious journalists.
Indeed, this writer, who reported on Traficant’s election to Congress and his years as the Valley’s top elected official, decided that the word “buffoon” ideally described what he had become as the years went by.
It wasn’t always that way. Traficant, a Democrat, was one of the most talented politicians in the history of the Valley. He had to be — given that he defeated incumbent Congressman Lyle Williams, a Republican, after inexplicably getting the better of the federal government in a criminal trial while he was Mahoning County sheriff. He defended himself against charges of racketeering, conspiracy and tax evasion stemming from the government’s claim that he took money from the Mafia during his race for sheriff.
His victory made him a folk hero in this region and he parlayed that public adoration into a run for Congress. He won — and at least at the beginning of his tenure showed signs of political maturity and talent. His speeches during his early days on Capitol Hill focused on labor issues, trade with China, the collapse of the steel industry in the Mahoning Valley. He was one of the first members of Congress to warn of China’s growing influence and the communist country’s willingness to cheat, lie, manipulate and do whatever was necessary to take advantage of the lucrative American market. The results of that strategy are plain to see .
But while Traficant’s common-man, crude language attracted some national attention, the speeches weren’t the blockbusters he wanted.
That’s when he decided that buffoonery could be the highest form of flattery — in a perverted way. Reporters covering the House were enthralled by his ability to weave his preoccupation with human bodily functions into a speech about the Federal Reserve, big business and foreign aid.
But while he basked in the glow of national press coverage, Traficant was actually dismissed by thoughtful journalists and Valley residents as the court jester — a joke.
It was inevitable that his unjustified arrogance would catch up with him. It did, when the federal government charged him with 10 criminal counts of using his public office for personal gain.
The evidence in the trial showed him to be nothing more than a con man who had bamboozled the voters of the Valley.
After his conviction, he was expelled from the House, only the second time that a member was kicked out of that body since the Civil War. He was sentenced to eight years in federal prison and emerged in September 2009 — with his base of support intact.
A welcome-home party attended by 2,000 people made national news — because it demonstrated just how blind some people are to Traficant’s shenanigans.
Thus, this column’s headline: “Traficant: America’s con man.” It’s a take-off on the book that he has released, “America’s Last Minuteman — From burping bovines to nuclear canines, all the way to the Internal Revenue Service.”
On the cover, under a picture of him during his early years in Congress was this: “James A Traficant, Jr. — Quarterback – Congressman – Convict – Political Prisoner
“A book by a man who many people now state was the victim of a wrongful conviction in 2002, because of his frank, straightforward politics.”
And this: “Ted Nugent said, ‘Jim Traficant is one of the last American warriors.’”
Victim of a wrongful conviction? Frank, straightforward politics? An American warrior?
The fact that he didn’t have the good sense to simply ride off into the sunset after he served his time in the federal penitentiary speaks volumes.
A better book by Traficant would have been one that would have appealed to adolescent boys: “Everything You Wanted To Know About Flatulence But Were Too Polite To Ask.”
Yes, Traficant’s tenure in Congress was a gas.