Yes, Randy ‘‘Duke’’ Cunningham was both the first U.S. ace — a combat pilot who shoots down five enemy aircraft — of the Vietnam war and a ‘‘Top Gun’’ Navy pilot. Those credentials helped him in 1990 to win election from San Diego to the Congress, where according to his official bio, he was ‘‘recognized by several law enforcement agencies for his tough-on-crime position.’’ And where he spoke often and emotionally of his commitment to and ‘‘passion for national security.’’
If hypocrisy were an Olympic event, Rep. Cunningham, R-Calif., would win both the gold and silver medals.
The Bush-Cheney campaign used Cunningham as a designated hit man in 2004. He went on national TV to attack Democrat John Kerry — ‘‘We do not need a ’Jane Fonda’ as commander in chief’’ — and as someone who ‘‘would depreciate our military and our intelligence services in a time of war.’’
This was no aberration. In 1992, Cunningham branded Democratic nominee Bill Clinton a ‘‘traitor’’ for his anti-Vietnam War activities and said of all Vietnam War protesters, ‘‘I would have no hesitation about lining them up and shooting them.’’
If you still needed a character reference for this political thug, simply listen as House majority leader-emeritus, Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, this summer declared: ‘‘Duke Cunningham is a hero. He is an honorable man of high integrity.’’
Last week, the ‘‘heroic’’ Duke Cunningham tearfully confessed that he had ‘‘demanded, sought and received at least $2.4 million in illicit payments’’ to steer from his influential positions on the House committees for defense appropriations and intelligence Pentagon contracts to the defense contractors whose bribes he had solicited.
The ‘‘Top Gun’’ traveled first class. His graft, according to the prosecutors, came in many forms: ‘‘cash, checks, meals, travel, lodging, furnishings, antiques, rugs, yacht club fees, boat repairs and improvements, moving expenses, cars and boats.’’
For the betrayal of his office and his oath, and his serial criminal acts, Cunningham faces up to 10 years in prison. That could be interesting, because his new colleagues behind bars may be interested to learn that Duke’s stated legislative priority — in addition to his impassioned crusade for a constitutional amendment to outlaw the continuing national epidemic of flag-burning — was passage of a ‘‘no frills’’ prison act ‘‘to prevent luxurious conditions in prisons,’’ such as unmonitored phone calls or training equipment for any bodybuilding, or working less than 40 hours a week.
But in the final analysis, it is not Cunningham’s staggering greed that is the real offense. It is his confession that he steered defense contracts because of the bribe money he took and not because the work of his criminal collaborator ‘‘was in the best interest of the country’’ — the country the California Republican professed to love, the country he sought to protect from John Kerry.
Cunningham’s motive was not obtaining the best intelligence gathering or analysis, the specialty of one of his co-conspirator contractors, to protect and defend American troops at risk. No, it was to make a buck even if his corrupt accomplice corporation failed to protect those troops Cunningham insisted were his ‘‘passion.’’
One of the contractors with which Cunningham colluded had as its task to develop better protection for U.S. Marines and soldiers in Iraq from the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) along the roadside that insurgents use to blow up U.S. vehicles and kill or cripple those aboard. Cunningham’s intervention from his powerful committee positions may well have steered a contract to one of his undeserving crony-criminal corporations and away from a more deserving company that might have been able to combat the IEDs and save American lives.
Could this former Vietnam hero have been so blinded by greed and avarice that, more than any indelible stain on his record, we might find the blood and bones of today’s American heroes on his hands? That dreadful possibility demands a thorough, truly bipartisan investigation immediately.
Mark Shields writes for Creators Syndicate.
© 2005 The Ocala Star-Banner