I'd always been vaguely aware that James Traficant was a US Congressman from Ohio with a weird head of hair and a reputation for being colorful. But I'd never really paid much attention to him until his obituary appeared yesterday.
I was surprised how many of the classic flags for sociopathy he had waved during his lifetime. Most of those flags were yellow, but he waved a couple of red ones as well.
On the surface, Traficant was an appealing figure. He had a reputation for sticking up for the underdog. It certainly took guts for him to stick up for John Demjanjuk, who was accused of being Nazi concentration camp guard "Ivan the Terrible." (Israel convicted Demjanjuk in absentia, then later reversed that conviction.) As Sheriff of Mahoning County, Ohio, Traficant spent three days in jail because he had refused to evict former steelworkers who had just lost their jobs from their homes. (The law ought to be enforced, but at the same time one can sympathize with and even admire his attitude.) Although he was a Democrat, Traficant often voted with Republicans, showing a strong independent streak which eventually resulted in him being stripped of every committee assignment by the end of his tenure in the House.
But, there were just too much sociopathic behavior not to come to the conclusion that he was one.
Traficant played quarterback for the University of Pittsburgh. This is a position which takes great nerve to be good at, especially at a football powerhouse like Pitt. Being a successful quarterback doesn't even rise to the level of a yellow flag, but given everything else about Traficant, it does fit the pattern.
But charm -- even the self-deprecating variety -- is often a hallmark of sociopathy. The NY Times obituary quoted Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio: “There wasn’t a guy who had more charisma, or more of an ability to make someone feel special and part of the fun that was going on.”
This is reminiscent of Bill Clinton, another sociopath known for his ability to make everybody feel special.
Traficant was first accused of corruption in 1983, when he was Mahoning County Sheriff. Prosecutors said he was taking bribes from local mobsters to protect their businesses. Although he wasn't a lawyer, he decided to defend himself. (Acting as one's own lawyer -- thinking that one will do a better job than a professional -- takes incredible arrogance; I've never known anyone to do this who wasn't a sociopath. Others who've acted as their own lawyers include Ted Bundy and Colin Ferguson, the Long Island Railroad shooter.)
Miraculously, Traficant got off by claiming that he was conducting a one man sting operation.
In 2000, he was indicted again, and this time he was convicted. From the NY Post:
During the two-month trial, he did a curbside interview on live network TV outside the courthouse each morning and then went inside to challenge U.S. District Judge Lesley Brooks Wells, who tried to dissuade Traficant from representing himself [again].
What kind of person has the nerve -- and the gall -- to do a live TV interview every single day while on trial? (Rhetorical question.)
Traficant ended up being sentenced to eight years in prison, of which he served five. Upon his release in 2009, he actually ran again for office, though he was defeated. (Shamelessness is another sociopathic trait.)
It's one thing to accept bribes from businessmen and mobsters, who theoretically have some choice in the matter. From a sociopathy standpoint, it's worse to coerce your staffers to work on your farm and on your houseboat on the Potomac, which Traficant was also convicted of. The staffers had far less choice, at least if they wanted to keep their jobs, and the fact that Traficant took advantage of them means that he ruled his fiefdom by fear and intimidation. In other words, he was a bully -- another classic sociopathic trait.
A "colorful" character can sometimes refer to a true eccentric, someone who is truly different from others and has a lot of offbeat opinions. But in this case it referred to a flamboyant sociopath who loved attention and also loved money, and would do anything to get either. Traficant knew how to make himself appealing to the electorate, but if you looked closely, you saw a guy with tremendous nerve, no shame, and no scruples.