If I sported a hairpiece, I’d be wearing it at half-mast right about now, upon hearing that the world just grew a little less interesting. For the most colorful man who ever inhabited Congress, former Ohio Democratic Rep. James A . Traficant Jr., expired today at the age of 73. Traficant—he of the Barney Miller-era suits and conspiracy theories and “beam-me-up” one-minute floor speeches and the toupee that looked like a marmot getting electroconvulsive therapy—died as he lived: crushed beneath the weight of The Machine. A tractor he was driving rolled over on him.
I, for one, will miss him, much as I did when he went to federal prison in 2002 to serve a seven-year sentence on corruption charges. Well before Traficant became a federal inmate, I went to see him for a profile. Though we were only in each other’s company for one day, he gave me everything a profiler could want: sex (he informed me in a crowded Rayburn Building elevator that a lot of women hit on him and he takes them on out of a “responsibility to the American woman”), violence (he slapped me in the face while insisting on calling me “Kibosh” instead of “Labash,” accusing me of coming to do “a castration job”) and intimacies (he spent hours insisting that Janet Reno, whose Justice Department was then bearing down on him, was a lesbian mob puppet).
We got along so famously, that I promised/threatened to call him again. Traficant emphatically told me not to: “You ain’t gonna catch up with me no more. Don’t call me again.” But then, as a token of affection, he offered me an American flag, once flown over the Capitol. I still kept an eye on Traficant in the years that followed—as he shipped off to prison, as he started painting horses on prison cardboard and Formica and selling them on his website (beammeupart.com), as he unsuccessfully ran for Congress again upon his release, getting stomped by an old political aide, even though the creaky Rust-Belt Dem whose career presaged the Tea Party Revolution had vowed to lead the charge to abolish the IRS and repeal the 16th Amendment.
Once, many years ago, I tried to reach out to Traficant in prison, wishing to see how he was getting along, or maybe to talk horse art. But he didn’t want to be seen in his diminished, incarcerated state (he reportedly accepted no visitors). And so, I never again enjoyed his company. But I still have that flag, which I fly today, in his honor. And there’s our old piece together (included below), a snapshot of Traficant from a time when he roared like a skinny-tied lion:
Traficant, Can He?
Will the crazy congressman from Youngstown kneecap the Democrats?
October 16, 2000
Vol. 6, No. 05
Of all the shots aimed at Rep. James Traficant (that he is a profane, ethically shaky, showboating vulgarian, for starters), there are none so cheap as those directed at his appearance. "It's tough being a fashion leader," the Youngstown Democrat admits. Knight-Ridder said Traficant's hair bespeaks "terminal bedhead," while the Los Angeles Times settled on a "Planet of the Apes sort of hair helmet." Washingtonian said he resembled "a creature from Lake Erie before it was cleaned up," while George speculated that his wardrobe was his way of "subtly campaigning for a pay raise."
It hardly seems fair. So when I'm permitted by Traficant's chief of staff Paul Marcone to shadow the Ohio pol for a day ("Unless he gets sick of you -- then he'll throw you out," Marcone warns), I resolve to look beyond cosmetics: to get past Traficant's kelly-green Dacron bell-bottoms, past the double-knit jacket that has held up so valiantly since its purchase during the Ford administration, past the coif that Traficant's hairdresser wife can't tame, as it makes a brisk ascent from his serrated bangs up his conical crown, stopping to rest in a Peppermint Patty-style nest of hair, which looks to be his own.
But it proves difficult extricating the man from the caricature, because, it seems, the man is the caricature. As I catch up with Traficant at the conclusion of his testimony before a Senate subcommittee, he shouts me down for being late, calls me "Kibosh" instead of "Labash," bellows to congressional passers-by that I'm there to do a "castration job," and gives me a molar-rattling goombah-style smack in the face as he inquires, "Why would you want to do a piece on a jackass like me? Though I am at the zenith of my jackasshood, I want you to know."