The Lenny Bruce of Congress

The comic genius of James Traficant Jr.

Now that he’s facing 63 years for bribery and racketeering, Ohio Democrat Rep. James Traficant Jr.’s days in Congress are numbered. After his fellow members of Congress expel him, as they’re likely to, Traficant’s political obituaries will probably read something like this: Traficant was corrupt and criminal. In his earlier stint as a county sheriff in gritty eastern Ohio, he took $163,000 in mob money. To distract attention from his malfeasance, he tried to stage a fake hit, begging a deputy to shoot him. (The deputy refused.) As a congressman, he required a staffer to hand over $2,500 from his monthly paycheck. He used ethnic slurs. And while his grandstanding won him appearances on talk shows, he did almost nothing to help his economically devastated district recover from the death of the steel industry. He may have been the worst congressman of the past decade.

But the obituaries will neglect Traficant’s evolution into a shock-comic genius—the Lenny Bruce of the House of Representatives, if you will. Every time he takes the floor to speak, he goes gonzo, turning the House into the Laugh Factory. Like other anti-establishment comedians, Traficant distinguishes himself not with cleverness, but with the sarcastic aside, the cutting insult, and the well-timed paroxysm of vulgarity, making a mockery of windbags and their tropes.

The Traficant approach begins with his look. He eschews the navy suit and French cuffs uniform of his colleagues for a style that evokes the retro-schlubbiness of the hipster, both rebellious and hilarious: slim ties, thrift-store suits, mussy hair (which he claims to groom with a “weed whacker”), and bell-bottom pants. It’s a sight gag that recalls the sartorial spectacle Rodney Dangerfield made of himself at the country club in Caddyshack.

The same anarchist spirit infuses Traficant’s oratory. His favorite vehicle is something they call the one-minute speech up on Capitol Hill. Delivered at the opening and close of the daily congressional session, these moments are typically reserved for perorations on such subjects as spelling bee winners or the case for a new courthouse. Traficant uses the time to comment on the gothic, preferably scatological, news of the weird. Mining his material from obscure newspaper headlines, he lets it rip. A few examples:

On the rumor that a transsexual won a French beauty pageant: “Reports say that pageant officials said they are anxiously awaiting the bathing suit contest. Unbelievable. Maybe J. Edgar Hoover will crown the next Miss France. … Even the University of Dayton School of Political Science can determine human genitalia.”

On a new undergarment: “It is called the holster bra, the gun bra. That is right, a brassiere to conceal a hidden handgun. Unbelievable. What is next? A maxi-girdle to conceal a stinger missile?”

On The Vagina Monologues: “Now if that is not enough to entice your condominium, this vaginal virtuoso is being billed as theater at its finest. Unbelievable. What is next? Rectal Diaries? Men are dropping like flies in America from prostate cancer and Broadway is promoting vaginal titillation.”

On free trade: “Mr. Speaker, the White House says NAFTA is creating new and exciting jobs. I did some research on those jobs: zipper trimmer, brassiere tender, jelly roller, bosom presser, chicken sexer, sanitary napkin specialist, and a pantyhose crotch closer machine operator. That is what I call exciting jobs, Mr. Speaker.”

Tradition dictates that congressmen end these speeches by uttering, “I yield the balance on my time.” Traficant burlesques this practice, closing with, “I yield back the fact that a proctologist should be advising these judges at this French beauty contest,” or, “I yield back all those Chinese missiles pointed at American cities.” That’s not his only closing shtick. In almost every speech, he exclaims, “Beam me up!” to let the C-SPAN viewers in on the joke. These alien cultural forces, he’s telling his constituents in working-class eastern Ohio, are too ridiculous to ruin our way of life.

Some people will argue that Traficant is not intentionally funny. But they haven’t heard him interviewed. He’s superb at the snappy comeback. And watching him, it’s perfectly clear that he intentionally blurs the line between faux outrage and genuine ire—a subversion of the manufactured indignation that rules mainstream political discourse. Listen to this exchange with CNN’s Tucker Carlson on the now defunct Spin Room.

CARLSON: Now, Congressman—

TRAFICANT: Don’t call me names, Tucker. Look, I’ve been standing out in the cold for 20 minutes. The driver was at the wrong address. I’ve really had it, and then I come here and see these props with spins going around. I think members of Congress do work hard. Many of them are good. I once referred to them as a house of prostitutes, a bunch of political prostitutes, then had to apologize to all the hookers in America for having said that.

Even as he went down in legal flames, he played the event for laughs, treating the courthouse as just another gig. Representing himself against charges of bribery, tax evasion, racketeering,and fraud, Traficant produced dada moments that hark back to the Chicago Seven and Marx Brothers movies. When the judge asked Traficant if he had any motions, he replied, “I have to go to the bathroom.” After the prosecution presented its case, he scoffed that they’d produced such a flimsy case that “I could sit there and pass gas, quite frankly.” And he excelled at cross-examination, asking questions in quick succession and then attempting to smuggle in the objectionable, “Mr. Hess, is it a fact that you don’t know a damn thing about this case other than what [the prosecutors] gave you?”

Alas, he’ll now yield back the balance of his time to a federal warden. But as “Explainer” noted last week, even if his colleagues expel him, he can still run from prison. The campaign script writes itself: Traficant will crack jokes about soap; he’ll defiantly flaunt his orange jump suit; he’ll argue that the entire House deserves to be behind bars. It’ll be the grandest Traficant stunt yet. Beam him up.