Any self-respecting congressional reporter not wearing a protective athletic cup probably would have rushed out of the way to safety.
“Get out of my way or I’ll kick you in the crotch and give you a hernia from here to New Jersey,” sneered former Jim Traficant at a cadre of journalists blocking his exit from a hearing room in the Rayburn House Office Building in July 2002.
The House Ethics Committee had recessed from a meeting about Traficant’s conviction on federal corruption charges. At the end of the session, Traficant tried to make his way into the corridor while committee members deliberated whether they should expel the belligerent-sounding Ohio Democrat.
But no reporter would dare clear the way for Traficant, despite his physical threat. First of all, Traficant wasn’t going to do it. Secondly, whatever Traficant said next would be even more outrageous than the last. It was quite a show. And no scribe wanted to miss that.
Jim Traficant. Lewd. Profane.
But oh so fun to watch.
He wore a pompadour that looked like it was combed with a Sunbeam Mixmaster. Then there was the skinny tie purchased when Hall & Oates were still big. He sported sideburns reminiscent of Bob Keeshan. Bell-bottom trousers.
Why would any lawmaker dress and act this way? The answer was easy. In a club of 435 people, it’s easy to become invisible. Only a few stand out. Sure, you have the top leaders. And then there are the show horses who score all of the interviews and pontificate on the Sunday shows. Finally there are the legislative tacticians who muscle bills to passage.
But that’s a pretty small clique. And as the late-House Speaker Tip O’Neill, D-Mass., used to lament, all of the “younger” members of Congress were all “blow-dried” and had “flat stomachs.”
So in Congress, the trick is to make yourself stand out. And if you dress a little nuts and act a little nuts and perhaps are a little nuts … .
“Who are you with?” barked Traficant at a photographer hoisting a camera near the door at the ethics hearing.
“NBC,” replied the photog.
“Nincompoop Broadcasting Corporation,” opined Traficant. “If I had a gastric emission, it would destroy every camera in the joint.”
A sound technician slid a shotgun microphone affixed to a lean fish pole across the floor to capture what Traficant might say. The soundman maneuvered the mic low, trying to keep it clear of the camera sight lines.
“What are you doing? Going to hold that thing down to my crotch? What am I? Speaking below the belt now?” Traficant asked as he sauntered into the hallway to pose for pictures with interns and junior congressional aides.
Traficant’s ethics hearings made for boffo theater. One day before Ethics Committee members arrived to gavel the meeting to order, the congressman lifted up the side vents of his cream-colored, polyester suit and acted as though he was mooning his colleagues. News photographers crouching in front of the dais lapped it up.
During the sessions, Ethics Committee counsel Paul Lewis and Traficant sat side-by-side at tables, like lawyers in a courtroom. A coterie of aides surrounded Lewis.
Traficant brought no counsel and is not a lawyer. Traficant came by himself -- just like he did when he twice defended himself in federal court on corruption charges. The first time worked for Traficant and propelled him to Capitol Hill as the quintessential, working-class, rust belt, populist from Mahoning County, Ohio. The second time didn’t. The government convicted Traficant and the congressman appeared before the Ethics Committee.
“It’s not often that we see such direct evidence of such misconduct,” argued Lewis. “Each count has been proved with clear and convincing evidence.”
Lewis’s measured-but-damning language may have sounded like dialogue uttered by every TV attorney from Jack McCoy to Perry Mason. But you’d never hear bromide verbiage like that from Jim Traficant.
“My stomach is upset,” he said to the committee. ”I’m having some rectal disorders, as a matter of fact. And I am hard to live with. I want you to disregard all the opposing counsel has said. I think they are delusionary. I think they have had something funny for lunch in their meal. I think they should be handcuffed to a chain-linked fence and flogged. And all of their hearsay evidence should be thrown the hell out. And if they lie again, I’m going to go over and kick them in the crotch.”
The hearing room erupted in laughter.
Then-committee Chairman Joel Hefley, R-Colo., never missed a beat.
“Thank you, Mr. Traficant. Mr. Lewis?” pivoted Hefley.
“Nothing further, Mr. Chairman,” deadpanned Lewis, prompting an even louder cascade of laughter.
At the end of the hearing, David Welna, of National Public Radio, and a phalanx of other reporters mobbed Traficant. Welna asked the congressman if he’d resign rather than face expulsion.
“Do you really think I’d resign?” asked Traficant. “Get out of my face. And National Public Radio, someday they’re going to come into your bedroom and monitor your sexual activities. Now get out!”
A few days later, the House vote 420-to-1 to expel Traficant.
The lone vote against tossing out Traficant came from then-Rep. Gary Condit.
The California Democrat was facing his own issues. Reporters hounded Condit for months after he had an affair with federal intern Chandra Levy who turned up missing. Levy was later found dead and police questioned how candid Condit had been with them during their inquiry. Authorities cleared Condit of wrongdoing but he lost his primary.
Traficant became the first House member lawmakers bounced from the institution since then-Rep. Ozzie Myers, D-Pa. He was removed in 1980 for taking bribes from undercover FBI agents in the “Abscam” sting.
Only Traficant, Myers and three others hold such an ignominious distinction in the history of the House.
Prior to Traficant, Myers was the only member of Congress removed who didn’t take up arms against the Union during the Civil War. Myers likened eviction from the House to the political “electric chair.”
In a 1990 “60 Minutes” profile of Traficant, then-Mahoning County, Ohio, Democratic Party Chairman Don Hanni declared that he “tried to have (Traficant) committed to a lunatic asylum” when the congressman was sheriff.
According to the report, a psychiatrist found Traficant to fall within “the normal range.”
A judge agreed and didn’t commit Traficant.
“Now he roams around the halls of Congress saying he’s got papers proving that he’s the only guy who’s not nuts,” chuckled Hanni to CBS.
The theatrical farce that played out during the ethics hearing was certainly vintage Traficant.
But those attuned to Capitol Hill knew they could catch a daily cameo of the congressman on the House floor each morning. That’s when the House conducts “One-Minute Speeches” shortly after gaveling to order. And it’s just that. Any member has the chance to come to the floor and talk about essentially anything -- for 60 seconds.
Traficant described these entreaties as his “Magic Moment.” And when it came to topics, well, the more noxious, the better for Traficant.
During one speech, Traficant verbally shoveled a Department of Agriculture study on manure.
“They found that big farm animals produce more manure than small farm animals. And manure stinks,” snorted Traficant. “I think these environmentalists at the Department of Agriculture have been smelling too many methane fumes. Why not let the chips just fall where they may?”
In the summer of 1987, the U.S. escorted and reflagged Kuwaiti tankers as they transported oil through the narrow, dogleg turn in the Persian Gulf known as the Strait of Hormuz. Briefly re-registering the vessels with American flags was an effort to deter those ships from Iranian rocket attacks.
“They should take that oil and shove it,” thundered Traficant during the Magic Moment, pausing for dramatic effect, “back in their tankers!”
Traficant was one of the most-vocal advocates for American labor and protecting U.S. products. He was particularly exercised over Japan dumping everything from steel to electronics into the U.S. marketplace in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Hours before President George H.W. Bush delivered his State of the Union address in 1990, Traficant noted that the chief executive that night would stand in the House chamber “and stare into an Ikegami HL-357” camera as he spoke.
“And that is the state of the union,” charged Traficant.
The congressman frequently punctuated each harangue with an emphatic “beam me up,” a line lifted from Star Trek when Captain Kirk would request the transport an away crew back to the ship from the planet’s surface.
Ironically, neither Kirk nor any other character uttered that precise phrase on the show.
Congress certainly has its characters these days but none as verbose and entertaining as Jim Traficant.
“There should be no Ethics Committee,” postulated Traficant during his hearing more than 12 years ago. “There is no ethics in politics.”
And despite all of his bombast, a lot of those on Capitol Hill today and then may agree.