Career spans from Top Gun to scandal

Navy ace to politician, Cunningham had it all
By Gerry Braun
July 15, 2005

As a fighter pilot in the Vietnam War, Randy "Duke" Cunningham shot down five enemy aircraft. Cunningham was also an instructor at the Navy's Top Gun academy.

As a fighter pilot, Randy "Duke" Cunningham became an ace in the Vietnam War by shooting down five enemy aircraft, including three in one day.
As a politician, he achieved comparable celebrity.

In his first campaign, he knocked off an entrenched congressman, Jim Bates.

Two years later, he took down another, Bill Lowery.

Yesterday, he bagged his third – an eight-term incumbent, Duke Cunningham. To those who followed Cunningham's career, it may come as no surprise that the former Navy Top Gun would be the architect of his own undoing.

Cunningham's financial transactions with a defense contractor have undermined his support in a reliably Republican district and could entail serious consequences, including prison time. His seeming audacity caught his allies by surprise.

Yet Cunningham often behaved as if the rules had been written for others.

While he was in flight school, he reportedly was almost court-martialed for illegal conduct. Cunningham denies the allegation – spelled out in the book "Fall From Glory: The Men Who Sank the U.S. Navy" by Gregory L. Vistica – that he illegally broke into Miramar offices to compare his personal records with those of fellow pilots. But two of his former commanding officers support the allegation.

In Vietnam, he served with valor – his plane was shot down the day he became an ace – yet Cunningham threatened to boycott the ceremony where he was to receive the prestigious Navy Cross. The reason: He wasn't getting a higher honor, the Medal of Honor.

As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, he flouted the decorum of that chamber, scuffling with one congressman and challenging another to a fight, denouncing Democrats as socialists and calling homosexual soldiers "homos." His behavior prompted Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo, to make a parliamentary inquiry: "Do you have to call the gentleman a gentleman if he is not one?"

Even in his tranquil North County district, Cunningham could find a fight. Most famously, he hosted a forum where he was drawn into an argument that ended when he flipped off a constituent and, for emphasis, shouted the two-word meaning of his one-finger salute.

If his behavior at times seemed childish, he also had a child's gift for contrition. His expressions of remorse – like the one delivered yesterday – came accompanied with wet eyes and the ring of sincerity: "It pains me beyond words that I have jeopardized your trust."

Like the man himself, Cunningham's politics were hard to pin down. "I cut my own rudder," he has explained it.

He was a staunch fiscal conservative who, like many staunch fiscal conservatives, retained a spirit of flexibility for causes close to his heart.

The husband of a teacher-turned-principal, Cunningham could speak passionately about education and, from his position on an appropriations subcommittee, steer education money to his home state.

He became a champion of medical research after being treated for prostate cancer.

And while he excoriated President Clinton for not doing enough to balance the budget, Cunningham has no problem with the record deficits run up by President Bush in the name of national defense and fighting terrorism.

He frequently sought a middle ground on abortion, pleasing neither side. He was an early champion of term limits who had no plans to retire himself, before scandal struck.

Cunningham was also strident about the War on Drugs, and his first defense to questions about his financial dealings was to blurt out, "I've never even smoked a marijuana cigarette."

Yet when his son was convicted of marijuana smuggling, Cunningham, who had supported strict penalties for drug traffickers, pleaded with the judge for leniency, shedding tears in a Boston courtroom.

Easily choked up, especially when talking about children at risk and patriotism, the bearish Cunningham may have cried in public more than any 10 other congressman.

Yet, conversely, he peppered his comments with graphic metaphors, often involving firearms.

He once declared that all Vietnam War protesters should be "lined up and shot." He also declared that the Democratic leadership should be "lined up and shot." Debating an assault-weapons ban in the House, Cunningham argued the futility of seizing guns: "I have flown an F-14 over this Capitol with a 20-millimeter gun that could shoot 6,000 rounds a minute. I could disintegrate this hall in a half-a-second burst."

This habit left others ill at ease. Once, in speaking to a high school class, Cunningham deflected a question with national-security implications by telling the student, "I could tell you the answer, but then I'd have to kill you." Nervous laughter followed.

Recently, Cunningham received a burst of publicity when the House passed his constitutional amendment allowing Congress to outlaw burning the American flag. It was a rare time he was publicly associated with legislation.

Yet on three other occasions, he held the media in thrall.

The first was when he was a freshman in Congress and his Top Gun credentials gave him instant credibility in the debate over the first Iraq War.

The second was in 1992, when he and Reps. Duncan Hunter and Bob Dornan took to the House floor to challenge Clinton's patriotism before the C-SPAN cameras and an all-but-empty chamber.

The third has come in recent weeks, as federal investigators targeted him and raided his home. Sizing up the media crowd yesterday, Cunningham said, "Wow!" and chuckled softly.

Yet the high point of his career may have come in 1998 when he emerged from prostate cancer surgery and became a champion of early testing for the disease.

Speaking to the group then known as the Conservative Order of Good Guys, Cunningham exulted, "I'm the luckiest guy in the whole world."

It was a sadder man who yesterday explained, "I cannot turn back the clock."

Embattled Congressman Will Not Run in '06

By CARL HULSE/New York Times

WASHINGTON, July 14 - Under investigation for a real estate deal and his ties to a military contractor, Representative Randy Cunningham, an eight-term Republican, announced Thursday that he would not seek re-election next year in his district in the San Diego area.

"I do not believe that a political campaign in the midst of such an investigation is in the best interests of my family or my constituents," Mr. Cunningham said at a hastily called news conference at which he denied any wrongdoing but acknowledged poor judgment.

The decision by Mr. Cunningham, a conservative and former Navy pilot active on military and intelligence issues, makes him the first lawmaker to be claimed by a swirl of ethics accusations that have engulfed the House this year.

Representative Tom DeLay, the majority leader, has come under intense scrutiny over his travel as well as his ties to the lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is the subject of Congressional and federal inquiries. Other lawmakers of both parties have raced to file or correct their own travel records in light of the focus on Mr. DeLay, a Texas Republican.

Democrats have also questioned the activities of a handful of other Republicans and cited the investigation that led to Mr. Cunningham's decision not to run as a reason that public regard for Congress is slipping.

"The American people deserve a Congress that looks out for their pocketbook issues, not their own pocketbooks," said Bill Burton, the communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Republicans dismissed any suggestion that Democrats would be able to capitalize in next year's elections on the House ethical climate.

"I don't know of any member of Congress who has ever lost a race because of something another member of Congress allegedly did or didn't do," said Carl Forti, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. If Democrats seek to focus on ethics, Mr. Forti said, Republicans will be ready to air accusations about Democratic leaders.

Mr. Cunningham's problems began earlier this summer when the Copley News Service disclosed that a defense contractor who is close to him bought Mr. Cunningham's home for $1,675,000 in 2003 and sold it nearly a year later at a loss of $700,000 in one of the nation's hottest housing markets.

Mr. Cunningham was also living in Washington on a yacht owned by the contractor, Mitchell J. Wade, a founder of the firm MZM, Inc. The firm has been getting more federal military-related business in recent years, and Mr. Cunningham is on a subcommittee that oversees military spending. Federal agents recently searched Mr. Cunningham's home, the yacht and the firm's Washington office.

On Thursday, appearing with his wife, Nancy, on the campus of California State University, San Marcos, Mr. Cunningham read a prepared statement, his voice breaking occasionally.

"I fully recognize that I showed poor judgment when I sold my home in Del Mar to a friend who did business with the government," he said. "I should have given more thought to how such transactions might look to those who don't know me like you do."

Mr. Cunningham said that he expected to be vindicated but that he had decided it was best to step aside. He also said he and his wife intended to sell their new house and donate some of the proceeds to local charities.

"I learned in Vietnam that no one person is more important than the mission, and I do not intend to forget that lesson now," he said, adding that it would be best to allow someone else to represent the district, the 50th. He took no questions.

The Republicans expect to be able to retain the seat, which is in an area that gave President Bush 55 percent of the vote in the last election.

"Today, Duke Cunningham did for his party what he has always done for his country," said Representative Thomas M. Reynolds of New York, chairman of the House Republican campaign committee, using Mr. Cunningham's nickname. "He put the interests of others above his own ambitions."

Chris Dixon contributed reporting from California for this article.