It's been a taboo since Roman times. But sometimes respect for history requires an exception. Dictators should go to the grave with a final accounting of their crimes against humanity. A former boss of mine, a Southerner by birth, refused to spare segregationist governors. Hunter S. Thompson tramped down Richard Nixon's grave with gonzo glee.
So what should we say today about the death of Jim Traficant, the bribe-pocketing, Mob-paid, vendetta-driven former congressman from Youngstown, one of the only two men expelled from Congress since the Civil War?
Humor, I think, is a completely appropriate response. Just like a comedian's obituary ought to make you laugh, a Traficant RIP fails if it doesn't give you a sense of his outrageousness.
From the Washington Post's Matt Schudel:
Glib and voluble, he was known for wearing cowboy boots, skinny ties and out-of-date polyester suits and for a bouffant mound of hair that seemed to defy gravity.
Reporters outdid themselves in trying to describe Mr. Traficant’s pompadour — and to determine whether it was real. In the words of the Los Angeles Times, it was a “Planet of the Apes sort of hair helmet,” or as Washingtonian magazine put it, “a creature from Lake Erie before it was cleaned up.” ...
“Let us tell it like it is,” he said in 1997. “When you hold this economy to your nosey, this economy does not smell so rosy. If there is any consolation to the American workers, I never heard of anyone committing suicide by jumping out of a basement window.”
It doesn't trivialize Traficant to explain how the toupee-clad congressman's bawdy humor and stunt-man chutzpah made him a cult hero in Youngstown. His mad-as-hell shtick gave him the dark power to survive in office for so long. It is key to understanding the man in full.
How else can you explain that the guy got caught taking $100,000 from the Cleveland Mafia and $60,000 from the Pittsburgh Mafia, claimed he was really running a one-man sting operation to bust them, got the jury to buy it, and was rewarded with a seat in Congress?
Actually, I can think of two ways. The other is to explain, seriously, what it says about Youngstown's underdog desperation in the 1980s and 1990s that it looked to him as its fearless savior.
I will leave that to Youngstown-native writers, including my former colleague Jacqueline Marino. Her excellent profile of Traficant, from the days just before his corruption finally caught up him, explains what he meant to Youngstown back then.
Today, Marino is co-editing the forthcoming Rust Belt Chic: The Youngstown Anthology, which I hope with include a good Traficant tale or two, plus the story of how the city finally broke Traficant's spell and moved on.
If Youngstown saw something in Traficant, should anyone who cares for Youngstown try to find redeeming value in its symbol turned shame? That's the approach Chris Geidner took yesterday, elegantly summing up Traficant's legacy with more generosity than I can muster:
At his best, he saw himself as a populist standing up for that city and its people. ...
He rose to local fame as the sheriff who went to jail himself rather than enforce eviction notices against people in the community — many of whom were losing their homes because of the death of the steel industry in the area. ...
At his worst, though, Traficant believed that being that man meant he deserved power and deference and the things — from money to meals and more — that, in his mind, went with that power.
Jim Traficant gave me my first lessons about politics — the good, the bad, and the ugly — and that education has proved invaluable to me as I cover the world around me.