The late Jim Traficant, who served 17 years in the House of Representatives and then seven years in the federal pen, might be the only congressman ever to start a prison riot. I can't say for sure that there weren't any others, and for that matter I can't say for sure that the Traficant riot really happened. But here, for the record, is what Traficant told Greta Van Susteren after his release in 2009:
Traficant: Before long, I was in the hole.
Van Susteren: For what?
Traficant: Well, they said I caused a riot. I asked a question of some jackass C.O. over there, some officer who was so dumb he could throw himself to the ground and miss. But anyway…
Van Susteren: What was the question?
Traficant: I forget what it was.
Van Susteren: Like what? I mean, can you give me an idea—was it…
Traficant: No. I said, "People can't hear you. Speak up."
Van Susteren: And you went to the hole for that?
Traficant: I went to the hole. But anyway, they said it caused a riot. They shackled me and took me in front of the whole body into some room over there and they put me in the hole.
Most of the attention that interview attracted focused on the ex-congressman's claim that his downfall had been engineered by the State of Israel—and yes, that paranoid portion of the conversation says a lot about Traficant's worldview. But the prison-riot exchange might be the ultimate Traficant tale, inasmuch as different audiences can construe it as either the persecution fantasy of a crooked loudmouth or the story of a man being punished for little more than stating a simple truth. It is even possible to read it as both, since crooked loudmouths have been known to state uncomfortable truths from time to time.
Traficant's years in prison, which followed a conviction for taking kickbacks and for other sorts of graft, were not his first time behind bars. As the sheriff of Mahoning County, Ohio, in the early 1980s, he spent a little time in jail after he refused to enforce some foreclosures, a populist gesture that endeared him to a constituency with no love for banks. Elected to Congress as a Democrat, he crusaded not just against bankers but against the IRS, the DoJ, and the regulatory state. Apparently, his constituents weren't crazy about the feds, either.
That sort of rust-belt populism, which also included a strong dose of economic nationalism, isn't unusual in Traficant's section of the country. I certainly met many people with a similar combination of views when I lived in Michigan. But their perspective doesn't ordinarily have a voice in Congress. Traficant became that voice, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. He was the sort of guy who'd spin loopy conspiracy theories in which hidden forces were manipulating Attorney General Janet Reno by threatening to reveal her secret dalliances with call girls. But he was also one of the few congressmen to criticize Reno's actions in Waco in the immediate aftermath of the assault that left dozens of Davidians dead in 1993, well before it was widely accepted that the government had screwed up. In the wake of those Waco comments, Bill Kauffman wrote that Traficant was "zany and frequently right-on," which was as good a way as any to describe a man who sounded like a nut but at times really did speak truth to power.
Traficant wore a ridiculous toupée, made Star Trek references on the House floor, spouted accusations that he couldn't back up, and ended up in jail. He was easy to mock, and plenty of people mocked him. Even if you found his eccentricities charming, you probably cracked your share of jokes about them. Here's Matt Labash, who profiled the guy 14 years ago and clearly enjoyed the experience, reacting yesterday to Traficant's death:
Traficant…died as he lived: crushed beneath the weight of The Machine. A tractor he was driving rolled over on him.
The line is both tasteless and funny, not unlike the deceased. The congressman himself might have gotten a chuckle out of it: Like all the great flamboyant political figures, he was self-aware enough to be in on the joke. "Why would you want to do a piece on a jackass like me?" he asked Labash back in 2000. "Though," he added, "I am at the zenith of my jackasshood, I want you to know."
Bonus links: Other Reasoners who have offered their thoughts on Traficant over the years include Jacob Sullum ("blunt, bizarre, and often hilarious"), Jeremy Lott ("a total nut job, albeit a highly amusing one"), and the anonymous elves who assembled this.