James Anthony Traficant, Jr. (May 8, 1941 – September 27, 2014)
September 30, 2014
Jim Traficant, a Slovak-American member of the US House of Representatives, passed away this weekend. Traficant was a political figure with a checkered past who was unabashedly in and out of trouble with the law. It appears that he took bribes a little more openly than most crooked politicians and was a little more open than most about who his strange bedfellows were. The saying “politics makes strange bedfellows” remains true nearly a century-and-a-half after American thinker Charles Dudley Warner committed those lines to print in My Summer in a Garden
This is politics we are talking about though, so I know enough not to expect the stories of a Congressman’s life to read like the curriculum vitae of a seven year old member of the Vienna Boys Choir. There are no ethics in politics. Experience has taught me that a just baseline for evaluating prominent politicians is to assume that they are all a little twisted if they are successfully pursuing high political office. Some politicians eventually disprove that; most don’t.
Being a Maverick Before it Was Cool
I knew little about Traficant until a few days ago. I think mention of him flashed across my radar screen a few times as I sought out writing that was divergent from the mainstream. One writer described him as a “proto-Tea Partier” who came before his time. His Democratic Party label might cause some tea partiers to challenge that claim, while his refusal to vote for a Democratic speaker would cause Democratic leaders to alienate him. US News and World Report called him “stubbornly anti-establishment” saying “Rep. James Traficant refused to compromise, but unlike today’s lawmakers, didn’t get mean about it.”
Many of the obituaries I’ve come across paint Traficant as colorful, as an adventurous and tacky dresser, and even as a guy from a working class town who wasn’t afraid of getting his nose broken or getting thrown in jail.
Blue blooded crooked people don’t like blue collar crooked people, because the later can make crooked behavior feel so unsavory. Maybe Traficant was of the working class crooked variety and therefore drew animosity from his crooked peers. I don’t know. What I do know is that only some people who openly and notoriously break the law actually go to jail and if the laws were equally applied many more people would go to jail. That always makes me wonder what the guys who end up in jail did wrong to stand out. Who did Traficant make mad?
My favorite obituary of Traficant’s that I’ve read so far is by writer Vince Guerrieri of Youngstown, Ohio for Politico. He addresses that question of Traficant’s crookedness by saying “Jimbo was a crook, but he wasn’t their kind of a crook. He was our kind of crook – and that’s something nobody outside of the Mahoning Valley really understood.”
It sounds like Traficant was a crook just like so many others in DC, so many others in politics. He broke some of the rules that the average American follows, many politicians do that and as long as a political crook follows the unwritten rules of his profession everything will be okay for him. It sounds like Traficant didn’t even have a taste for that level of concealment though. Here’s Guerrieri:
“The people of Youngstown watched Jimmy Carter refuse to guarantee loans for an employee purchase of the Sheet and Tube mills – and then rescue Chrysler from bankruptcy. Traficant just demonstrated what everyone in the Mahoning Valley learned the hard way: There’s no point playing by the rules in a rigged game.
“There are people who believe that Traficant’s only crime was getting caught, and he was targeted for refusing to play ball. And when you watched Traficant get stripped of his committee assignments for voting for Republican Dennis Hastert for Speaker of the House, and then see Joe Lieberman welcomed into the Democratic caucus with open arms after speaking at the Republican National Convention, it’s not hard to believe.”
Traficant’s Youngstown is midway between New York and Chicago on I-80. It’s history is full of coal, steel, rail, river, and canal like many cities in the region. It also, has seemingly forever, hosted a significant immigrant population throughout history, based around whoever the latest newcomers were, and has occasionally played host to some level of nativist backlash at points (even surging to a KKK presence in the 1920s). That industrial past has given way to a city continuing to have a strong immigrant population, very low median income today, and a dilapidated manufacturing base. This is a common story for the once thriving cities and towns that the Central and Eastern European immigrants came to in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The coal mines of Appalachia and steel mills of the eastern US created a stepping stone for so many immigrants three and four generations ago that have allowed successful families to spring up that are now far removed from the dangerous and dirty low man on the totem pole existence that so many newcomers to a new land have known.
Marilyn Geewax, a Youngstown native, reporting for NPR in writing about her memories of her Congressman did not defend Traficant’s actions but had an experience with the Congressman that made her recognize why he was so loved:
“Back when Traficant was still in high office, I gave a speech in Youngstown to a large group of business leaders. I told them that Youngstown would never be able to rise above its reputation for organized crime until voters there stopped electing crooks.
“A few days later, a box arrived. It had that beautiful flag [(that had flown over the U.S. Capitol)] and a note from Traficant praising me for making my hometown proud with my achievements as a journalist. No mention of my speech’s message — just hometown pride.
“And you know, I felt proud.
“When you are from a place that has been kicked down by industry, overrun by crime, abandoned by government and treated like a pariah, you feel kind of bad. And when someone says, ‘We may be down, but we stick together’ — you feel that too.
“Unlike the big corporations, Traficant never deserted his community — except, of course, for those years in prison.
“Now, whenever I hear people wonder how a guy like Marion Barry could keep getting elected time and again in Washington, D.C. — despite the crack pipe video and his long list of legal troubles — I understand. Sometimes, even a bad guy can make you feel good.”
Geewax covering the topic in this way illustrates an important point. It deals with people sorting the world around them by relationship. “Sorting by relationship” is simply a concept present throughout history about how a person may be a real bastard, but since “he is our bastard” then all can be overlooked. There are certainly better ways to evaluate a person, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is precisely how many people evaluate a person. This sentiment is worth keeping in mind the next time you ask yourself “how can anyone like Vladimir Meciar?” (“The Father of the Slovak Republic”), or even Vladimir Putin the man most associated with post Cold War Russia, or any other popular public figure that you really don’t care for. To the dismay of some observers, there are some egregiously flawed people who can be loved widely. It’s always important to keep the Hinlicky Rule in mind before blasting an opponent as an idiot for liking a person or a set of ideas. While calling every intellectual opponent an idiot is a convenient response, there’s obviously more to a person’s feelings, and as hard as it might be to recognize, attributing opinion to idiocy oftentimes leaves you in the role of being the one who is intellectually dishonest.
Italian on his Dad’s side, Slovak on his Mom’s side, Traficant’s mother’s maiden name was Farkas, which is the Hungarian word for “wolf” and is a common Slovak surname. It exists in neighboring Slavic speaking countries as well. Having the name Farkas can usually mean that a person had Hungarian ancestors. Another option is that maybe his family name was changed by the both forced and voluntary trend toward Magyarization among Slovaks living in present-day Slovakia in the later half of the 1800s. The wolf is a symbol of the tribe of Benjamin, making Farkas a possible Hungarian translation of a Yiddish name. Farkas can come from a person’s first name, roughly equivalent to the German Wolfgang, a name that also has ecclesiastical history. Sometimes there’s no known explanation for why a person has the last name that they do, because the ways last names came about are so varied.
1943 Ford Tractor
The former Congressman, 73, died September 27, 2014 from injuries sustained in a farming accident in which his 1943 Ford tractor tipped over and pinned him several days earlier. He was unconscious when firefighters came to rescue him.
Some people are barely mentioned when they pass. Obituary after obituary makes it obvious that for good or bad, Traficant has secured his place as a local folk hero in Youngstown and a legendary figure in DC, perhaps more likely to be ridiculed there than admired.
Traficant is remembered by at least some constituents as a man of the people and by at least some DC insiders as an embarrassment, which perhaps says very little, since popular opinion is often wrong and DC insiders are exactly the kind of people who a good man should hope to be despised by.
Instead of relying on any one person for the final say here, I’ll close by turning to the readers of these pages: I’m curious dear Reader, might you have any insight about this Slovak member of the US Congress?
Might any readers of these pages have had personal experiences with Jim Traficant that they’d like to share here? Were you a constituent? Was the guy a nut? Was he a genius before his time? Was he a crooked scoundrel? Was he simply a misunderstood nice guy making his way in the world?
Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time traveling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.