Woes of a congressional oddball

SUN JOURNAL

Characters: What with humorless prosecutors and the unblinking TV eye, Capitol Hill wackiness is being lost in a tide of blandness.

February 17, 2002|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The corruption trial of Rep. James A. Traficant Jr., which began this month, will determine not just the guilt or innocence of the Ohio Democrat, but also something else: the future of free entertainment on Capitol Hill.

If Traficant is convicted, who would take the place of a politician known for lime-green polyester pants, bizarre floor speeches and hair so bad that no bald man would want it?

Prosecutors don't find the particulars of the Traficant case, which centers on charges of bribes and kickbacks, very amusing, and they say he belongs in prison. To those who relish political theater, Traficant is a reminder of how eccentric Congress used to be and how much blander it seems to grow.

Some congressional veterans see Traficant as one of the few remaining throwbacks, the kind of rough-hewn politician who populated Capitol Hill before the political parties began instructing lawmakers to guard against unguarded moments, before the scripted candidates started crowding out the idiosyncratic ones.

David Pryor, a former Democratic senator from Arkansas who heads the Institute of Politics at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, says he is struck by the desire of so many current members of Congress to blend in.

"There's all this talk about, `I got a bald place on the back of my head.' Or, `I got to put powder on.' Or, `How am I going to show up on TV?'" Pryor says, noting the increasing influence of C-Span, which feeds minute-to-minute coverage of Congress to political junkies in every congressional district.

"People used to be elected because of their individuality, because they stood out in a crowd," he says. "Now there is a tendency for not showing your individual characteristics too much and speaking in 30-second sound bites."

When Traficant entered Congress in 1985, he worked alongside the late Rep. Jamie L. Whitten, a Mississippi Democrat with an accent so thick his Northern colleagues would smile and nod and wait for a translation, and the late Rep. Silvio O. Conte, a fun-loving Massachusetts Republican who cruised around in a bright red Pontiac nicknamed "The Judge."

Traficant has hung on while colleagues such as former Rep. Charles "Good Time Charlie" Wilson have left the spotlight. Wilson, a Texas Democrat who retired from the House in 1996, drew almost as much attention for taking a Playboy model to a White House party as he did for donning a bullet belt and sneaking into Afghanistan on a personal mission to support the mujahedeen rebels in the 1980s.

With flamboyance often comes scandal. Traficant could have learned that from the brash power broker Dan Rostenkowski, an Illinois Democrat and former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee who served time for mail fraud.

And there was the late Rep. Daniel "Dapper Dan" Flood, a Pennsylvania Democrat and Shakespearean actor with a pointy mustache who paraded around Capitol Hill in a cape. Flood was charged with influence peddling and quit in 1980 after pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy.

Traficant, 60, was indicted last spring on charges of tax fraud, racketeering and bribery, including allegations that he accepted payoffs from executives in exchange for congressional favors. In the federal trial in Cleveland, Traficant is also accused of delivering false testimony to the grand jury and of trying to persuade a congressional aide to destroy evidence in the case.

The 10-count indictment also alleges that he siphoned $2,500 from an aide's wages and required staffers, without pay, to work on his farm - building a horse corral and baling hay - and to repair his houseboat. Traficant has pleaded not guilty "by reason of sanity" and argues that the government is waging a vendetta against him.

"I didn't force anybody to do anything," Traficant bellowed in his opening statement last week. "You know what I did: I fought like hell for my people."

The case is seen as the final element of a sprawling federal investigation that over the past 25 years has incriminated more than 70 public officials in the Mahoning Valley of northeastern Ohio, where Traficant was born and raised.

The area has long been so rife with purported ties to organized crime that The Saturday Evening Post once dubbed it "Crimetown U.S.A." (At one point, a Mafia-related car bombing was known as a "Youngstown tuneup.")

Voters in this depressed steel region, the thinking goes, identify with Traficant's spirit of rebellion against entrenched power, even if he comes out looking nutty.

He won national attention once he began delivering oddball soliloquies on the House floor. With his trademark Star Trek sign-off, "Beam me up" (or, for emphasis, "Beam me up, Scotty"), he has used the one-minute speeches that all House members are regularly allotted to attack such targets as the federal prosecutors who are bringing him to trial, the "nincompoops" at the Internal Revenue Service and a suspected transvestite in a French beauty contest.

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