col Congress loses some of its colorful characters

By Curt Anderson

Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- Congress is becoming blander. No more "Beam me up!" refrains from Jim Traficant, the convicted felon and Star Trek fan who was beamed behind bars. No more Bob Barr and his relentless prosecutorial style. Cynthia McKinney is packing too, leaving with her polarizing opinions.

Sober times seem to be calling for sober politicians, and a variety of nonconformists with outsize personalities are on their way out.

"There's a move on the part of voters to have people represent them who appear reasonable and open to discussion," said Merle Black, political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta. "People don't want them to take rigid and uncompromising positions."


Barr's loss to fellow Republican Rep. John Linder in a suburban Atlanta district last week is a case in point. Georgia's Democratic-controlled Legislature lumped them together in a new district that maintained more of Linder's old constituents than Barr's.

But Barr -- a fiery former federal prosecutor, civil liberties and gun rights supporter and leader of the impeachment campaign against former President Clinton -- treated Linder, a reserved former dentist first elected in 1992, "almost as if he were a Democrat" instead of a respected GOP colleague, Black said. Linder swamped Barr, who first won election in 1994.

Also in suburban Atlanta, Rep. Cynthia McKinney's loss to fellow Democrat Denise Majette ousts one of the more confrontational House members. A frequent critic of Israel, she also angered members of both parties by suggesting President Bush purposely ignored warnings of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Ross K. Baker, a Rutgers University political science professor, likened McKinney's loss to that earlier this year of Alabama Democratic Rep. Earl Hilliard, who could not overcome ethical questions. In both cases, Baker said, Jewish political contributions boosted the challengers, and the incumbents seemed to have lost touch with their home districts.

"They lose sight of the fact that all politics is local," and members hoping for re-election should not be distracted by issues their constituents don't care about.

Traficant, of course, is a different story. The House expelled the Democrat on July 24 after he was convicted in Ohio of bribery, racketeering and other charges.

Yet Traficant will be missed. No other House member routinely wore outdated denim suits and ill-fitting hairpieces or sprinkled his almost-daily floor speeches with "Star Trek" references and profane verbal assaults on the IRS.

"I always said when I write the book, 'Characters I Knew in Congress,' he's going to be the first chapter," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a Texas Republican who is retiring -- taking his cowboy boots and country lyric quotations with him.


Rep. Gary Condit, the California Democrat, served quietly for years only to rocket to international notoriety because of his relationship with Chandra Levy, the government intern whose remains were found in a Washington park.

His TV interview with Connie Chung, in which he denied wrongdoing involving Levy, was quickly forgotten by most after Sept. 11. But his constituents remembered -- and rejected him in a primary election.

"I've tried to be a gentleman, I've tried to be dignified," Condit told reporters just before his loss. "You guys have pretty much taken the hide off my career."

While members of Congress love attention, they know too much prominence can destroy a career.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., became a huge political star after engineering the GOP takeover of the House in 1994. His every word and deed -- from the provocative to the mundane -- were reported like those of virtually no other speaker in history.

He became a lightning rod for Democratic critics and a personification of GOP extremism. After several political and personal missteps, Gingrich resigned after Republicans came perilously close to losing House control in 1998.

Of course, the House still has individualists.

There's gravelly voiced Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel on Harlem and fierce GOP partisan Tom "The Hammer" DeLay of Texas. Cajun Rep. Billy Tauzin of Louisiana uses a homespun style as the committee he chairs takes on America's corporate wrongdoers.


There's also champion surfer Dana Rohrabacher of California, former sports broadcaster J.D. Hayworth of Arizona and Alcee Hastings of Florida, who won election after the Senate removed him from the federal bench in 1989.

Yet with Traficant's departure, no one is likely ever again to cry, "Beam me up!" on the House floor.

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