Jim Traficant wants us to think he’s crazy. Throughout his recent trial for bribery, tax evasion, and racketeering, as well as during more recent congressional proceedings to expel him from the House of Representatives, Traficant has acted as if he’s slightly off his rocker. Check out this Washington Post account of his hearing before a House ethics subcommittee for evidence.
Trouble is, as amusing and kooky as Traficant’s antics are, no one really buys what he’s peddling. What Traficant’s really trying to do, it seems, is deflect attention from his crookedness by wrapping himself in the mantle of insanity (a tactic tried recently — with similarly little success — by Mafia capo Vincent “The Chin” Gigante).
That’s too bad, because a crazy congressman makes a great story.
There was, however, a member of Congress some years back who really was nuts. Marion Zioncheck, a New Deal congressman from Washington state, was colorful, charming, quirky, and, sadly, it turns out, insane. His descent into dementia was very short — just seven months — and very public. And, like Traficant’s downfall, it made for great copy.
In just a short period of time Zioncheck grabbed the nation’s attention with a hilarious series of madcap antics, bizarre stunts, and numerous arrests. Almost overnight he shed his congressional obscurity to become known as the “Playboy Congressman,” with a wild bride he barely knew, an odd ping-pong obsession, dancing pet turtles, and an Indian headdress. Today, strangely, he is entirely forgotten.
ZIONCHECK WAS ELECTED WITH FDR IN 1932, and earned no notice during his first three years in Congress. That all changed in late 1935. Neighbors complained to police about the howler of a New Year’s Eve bash he threw. When the cops arrived, they found Zioncheck in his cups, commandeering his apartment building’s switchboard and waking all the tenants.
The night ended with them putting the stewed congressman to bed, but the illustrious run of Marion Zioncheck was on. With increasing regularity, he made waves with odd or contentious behavior on the House floor. He derided Postmaster General James Farley, saying, “There has never been a dumber or more inadequate man in office.” Members of the Supreme Court were “old fossils” and “corporation lawyers.” When a fellow congressman made a unanimous consent request, Zioncheck said he would not object as long as the legislator wanted “to make a fool of himself.” The unamused colleague, Rep. William Ekwall, replied, “There is no bigger jackass in Congress” than Zioncheck. As if to prove that point, Zioncheck would need to be restrained from physically attacking a Texas congressman a few weeks later.
Rep. Zioncheck’ antics off the House floor made for bigger news. He gained notoriety for reckless driving. Skipping an April court appearance for speeding set the local authorities on his trail. When D.C. police found him, Zioncheck cited congressional immunity, a claim that failed to dissuade the gendarmes from tossing him in the clink, albeit not without a struggle. A fellow member of Congress had to pay Zioncheck’s fines to free him.
Four days later Zioncheck made the broadsheets again. The occasion this time was his eloping with a 21-year-old Works Progress Administration stenographer, Rubye Nix, whom he had only recently met.
Surprised reporters pressed him on how well he knew his new bride. “I met her about a week ago when she called me up one night,” he replied. “She asked me down and so I went down and looked her over. She was OK.” Before leaving on his honeymoon, Zioncheck entertained a coterie of bemused reporters at his apartment. Donning an extravagant Indian headdress, he mixed cocktails and served them stew.
The happy couple headed south for their honeymoon, but their progress was interrupted by a number of encounters with the law. Rubye was nailed for speeding in Charlottesville. Meanwhile, a warrant for Zioncheck’s arrest was being issued in Alexandria, Virginia, the result of another missed court appearance. One North Carolina sheriff apprehended the congressman after a high-speed pursuit, and was ready to extradite him. Problem was, the Alexandria authorities weren’t anxious to have Zioncheck returned. The sheriff let him go.
It was during this trip south that Zioncheck’s amusing antics started giving way to seriously deranged behavior. He and Rubye turned up in Puerto Rico, where in the course of several days Zioncheck twice crashed his car, was challenged to a duel, sparked a small independence riot, and called on the United States Marines to quell the uprising.
The Marines instead hustled Zioncheck and his bride to the more peaceful environs of the Virgin Islands. There, newspaper reports revealed, he was tossed out of a formal dinner for lapping his soup from his plate. This was relatively normal behavior compared to what would follow.
After dinner, his car careened into a ditch. Apparently he had bitten the driver on the neck. Zioncheck emerged from the accident in good shape — physically, at least. Reports also noted the congressman drinking cocktails of rum and hair tonic which he consumed with little difficulty.
MARION ZIONCHECK’S TRUE DIFFICULTIES were only starting. Zioncheck had been leasing his Washington apartment from an elderly magazine writer named Pamela Young, who was traveling through South America. Alarmed by the reports she received about her tenant, Mrs. Young hurried home to ensure the safety of her possessions.
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