BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Ohio Congressman James Traficant took to the airwaves this week as guest host for a local radio call in show. His appearance, which was also broadcast on C-SPAN, drew the criticism that it could taint the Cleveland jury pool for his upcoming trial for bribery and racketeering. Traficant faced similar accusations in 1983 in a high profile trial. From NPR member station WCPN, David C. Barnett reports on how this master of the sound bite has used the media to maintain a folk hero status in his district.
DAVID C. BARNETT: A mini-van pulls up in front of the Youngstown Federal Courthouse, and a flock of journalists and photographers surrounds the man who steps out. Congressman James Traficant smiles as a reporter asks him how he feels.
CONGRESSMAN JAMES TRAFICANT: Most-- [SOUND CUT]
DAVID C. BARNETT: This is vintage Jim Traficant. Short and sweet. Rude and crude. For nearly 20 years Ohio's 17th District Congressman has flaunted convention much to the pleasure of his constituents. Sporting a '70s vintage polyester suit and a gray hairdo that's been compared to a bird's nest, Jim Traficant gives off the image of a guy who doesn't care if you're offended by the way he talks or looks. All he says he's interested in is helping the people of his district. United Church if Christ Minister Werner Lange says that Traficant's strong local following has roots back in the days when he was county sheriff.
MINISTER WERNER LANGE: When the steel mills were shut down here in the late 1970s there was a lot of foreclosures; people being thrown out of their homes. One such family was in Struthers, and the judge foreclosed on them and ordered Jim Traficant to evict them. Jim Traficant refused to evict them as sheriff and the judge threw him in jail. That made him overnight a working class hero in this community.
DAVID C. BARNETT: This part of Northeast Ohio is known as "The Valley" after the Mahoning River Valley which defined a corridor of steel mills that shut down due to hard economic times 20 years ago, and then Sheriff Traficant's working class hero status was further tested with accusations of bribery and racketeering in connection with the Valley's powerful mob. To the surprise of many he beat the federal charges against him by conducting his own defense in a controversial trial that cemented his heroic stature and led to 9 terms as a member of Congress.
DAVID SKOLNICK: He certainly has a very strong core of support out there.
DAVID C. BARNETT: David Skolnick is a political reporter for the Youngstown Vindicator.
DAVID SKOLNICK: If he was to run for re-election today, I'd put his chances at 50-50 of winning, even with you know, a 10 count federal indictment staring him right in the face.
DAVID C. BARNETT: In mid-April federal prosecutors indicted James Traficant on new charges of bribery, racketeering and tax evasion. And now, once again, the congressman is preparing to conduct his own defense in a trial due to begin next year. This past week he took his case to the people as the substitute host of a local talk show.
CONGRESSMAN JAMES TRAFICANT: Let's go to Connie out - to Judy - Judy, you're on the air with Congressman Traficant.
WOMAN: Hi, Jim. I sympathize with your frustration with the government. I was a teacher, and....
DAVID C. BARNETT: Among the members of Jim Traficant's radio audience this week was Dr. Thomas Flynn, an associate professor of communication at nearby Slippery Rock University across the border in Pennsylvania.
MAN: He fits right into the clear channel lineup of Dr. Laura and Rush Limbaugh and the Savage Nation -- kind of all the people who tend to speak of conspiracies in the government; that's Jim Traficant's natural constituency I think is that audience.
MAN: All right. I think you could answer this problem with that energy shortage out there in California -- just turn off every other street light instead of paying off all these government agencies that get kickbacks through the power companies or however that works--
CONGRESSMAN JAMES TRAFICANT: Listen, if we all shut our air conditioners off and stop buying gas for a week they'd all bring the prices down in half.
MAN: There you go!
CONGRESSMAN JAMES TRAFICANT: Think about it! [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
MAN: [...?...] every other street light off....
DAVID C. BARNETT: In recent years the sound bite-savvy Traficant has gained some notoriety for his special order one minute speeches from the floor of the House. Communications analyst Thomas Flynn says that the one minute format is open to all representatives.
DR. THOMAS FLYNN: Jim Traficant, beginning about a year and a half ago, began in a series of speeches to talk about corruption in the Justice Department; treason on behalf of Janet Reno; corruption in the local FBI that's been conducting the two-year investigation into corruption and the Mafia and government here in Youngstown, and through this he kind of developed what I call an attack strategy.
CONGRESSMAN JAMES TRAFICANT: ...all together. I yield back what should be the next endangered species in the United States of America -- the internal rectal service.
DAVID C. BARNETT: Youngstown Vindicator politics reporter David Skolnick sees Jim Traficant as displaying a rumpled persona -- the Columbo-like Congressman that some people don't take seriously.
DAVID SKOLNICK: He's very calculating. I think he does that in order to allow people to put their guard down and maybe not treat him as, you know, so seriously and then he can, you know, work his Traficant magic.
DR. THOMAS FLYNN: The official Washington media doesn't pay much attention to Jim Traficant.
DAVID C. BARNETT: Communication expert Thomas Flynn thinks it's time they did!
DR. THOMAS FLYNN: Jim Traficant is very able using the one minute speeches, using the press releases, using appearances on talk radio like this to bypass the scrutiny of the local media. There are local media who have questions that they want to ask. There are very serious charges being leveled against Jim Traficant.
CONGRESSMAN JAMES TRAFICANT: I'm out of here.
REPORTER: What about the [...?...]-- [SEVERAL SPEAK AT ONCE]
CONGRESSMAN JAMES TRAFICANT: Thank you very much.
REPORTER: ...talk about you--
CONGRESSMAN JAMES TRAFICANT: Thank you for very much to make any comments about my case would place my situation in a legal trick bag and my attorneys advise me and I will not be commenting on my case. [OVERLAP]
CONGRESSMAN JAMES TRAFICANT: I think it's time to take our government back. I think it's time to look 'em in the eye! Like a junkyard dog in the face of a hurricane.
DAVID C. BARNETT: Many here in the Valley see Jim Traficant as a junkyard underdog. Some wonder how many times this congressional Rocky can make a late-round comeback. But nobody's counting him out yet. For On the Media, I'm David C. Barnett in Youngstown. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
CONGRESSMAN JAMES TRAFICANT: Just the son of a truck driver. Proud of that intelligent guy. I'm very glad to have come into your home. You can reach me at the U.S. Courthouse, Youngstown, Ohio. Jim Traficant. I've got a train to run. See you back in Washington. Take care.