'Beam Me Up, Mr. Speaker'

Editorial Notebook

Of the many precious pictures I have from my summer as a Congressional intern in Washington, none is quite as memorable as the one with Rep. James Traficant (D-Ohio), perhaps because it was so darn hard to get. Unfortunately, after his conviction in federal court last week on 10 counts of bribery and racketeering, among other things, those photo opportunities look to be even harder to come by.

It is an American tragedy that Traficant, age 60, faces up to 63 years in prison and $2 million in fines. He has represented the people of Youngstown, Ohio in the House for the past 18 years. In that time, he has made his mark as an independently-minded Democrat, often crossing party lines during the Clinton era on trade and taxation, which eventually got him kicked out of the party. And like all red-blooded Americans, Traficant has a deep, abiding hatred of the Internal Revenue Service, which he often dubbed the “Internal Rectal Service” in his famous one-minutes speeches on the floor of the House. In those rants, Traficant would often plead “Beam me up, Mr. Speaker!” Regardless of his guilt, Congress will be weaker—and certainly duller—because of his absence.

Traficant appealed not only to bored C-SPAN viewers but also to a dying steel community like Youngstown, where his energy and enthusiasm for “banging away in D.C.” made him immensely popular. This is all the more remarkable because Traficant has persevered in the face of almost constant attacks and investigations by the Justice Department. Traficant first made headlines in 1983, when he was a county sheriff, for successfully defending himself against federal bribery charges, despite not being a lawyer. His defense against overwhelming FBI evidence was that they had caught him in the midst of a sting operation he was running unbeknownst to anyone else in the sheriff’s department. How can such a flagrantly outrageous man not be an American folk hero?

Traficant continued in the same vein in his recent trial—again acting as his own counsel—arguing that the FBI has been out to get him ever since he beat their rap in his first case. The charges brought against him this time—that he forced his employees to work on his farm and provide kickbacks—were, he said, baseless and motivated by a political agenda that started in the Clinton administration. Traficant claims that he has been hounded by both minority leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.)—who has been mad at Traficant for his repeated clashes with Democratic leaders in the House—and Janet Reno, whom, he felt, must have borne a grudge for his insinuation on national television that she was gay.

Traficant certainly appeared larger than life when I met him in the summer of 2000. When I finally arrived, camera in hand, Traficant was in a jovial mood, having just read in a local Washington paper that he was being considered by Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan as a potential vice-presidential candidate.

With his hopeless hairpiece, polyester white jacket and dazed facial expression, Traficant cut quite a figure. To take the photo, Traficant decided that I should say “Monica” or “leotard” instead of the standard “cheese” and, with typical belligerence, declared that my dysfunctional camera was the result of faulty Chinese craftsmanship. (I owned a Kodak disposable.) As the shutter clicked, the U.S. Congressman put me in a half-Nelson.

That picture proudly hangs on my bedroom wall and his independent spirit, affable personality and desire to fight the good fight mean that, however Traficant’s legal battles end, my photo will remain there for many years to come.