Randy "Duke" Cunningham was more than a criminal. He was a head
case. And the astounding thing about the California Republican's career is
that federal prosecutors had to take him down. The voters didn't have the
self-regard to do it themselves.
Any number of politicians could have this conservative
congressional district in and around San Diego. The people didn't have to be
represented by a total screwball.
Some might forgive, even enjoy, crusty candor in a decorated
Navy pilot, which Cunningham was. But the man's outbursts overshot any rough
charm and landed in lunatic city. That his constituents now express shock
that he could do bad things makes you wonder.
Where do we start with Randy Cunningham? How about the time in
1998 when, while visiting a hospital, he gave the finger and threw the "F"
word at an elderly cancer patient? It seems that the patient, a World War II
veteran, had challenged Cunningham's assertion that the defense budget was
too low. In 1984, Cunningham had dared Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., to a
fistfight for opposing one of his pet pieces of legislation. But for all his
tough-guy bluster, Cunningham fell apart at the smallest sign of dissent.
He also loved to make menacing statements, and not just to
Democrats. "Your son is dead meat," he told Rep. Nick Smith in 2003, after
the Michigan Republican voted against the Medicare drug benefit. Smith's
crime was turning down a $100,000 bribe that the Republican leadership had
offered him for voting "yes." Smith's son was running for Congress, and the
money would have gone into his campaign. The son, Brad Smith, lost in the
"I have flown an F-14 over this Capitol with a 20-millimeter gun
that could shoot 6,000 rounds a minute," Cunningham told Congress, while
purportedly discussing an assault-weapons ban. "I could disintegrate this
hall in half a second." In 2004, he made a similar comment to a high-school
history class in Encinitas, Calif. "I could've disintegrated this whole
school in half a second," Cunningham said.
One month later, the voters elected him to an eighth term.
Like many bullies, Cunningham could dish it out but he couldn't
take it. In 1994, he supported retaining the death penalty for drug
kingpins. Four years later, his son was convicted of helping smuggle 400
pounds of marijuana from California to Massachusetts. At the sentencing,
Cunningham cried and asked the court for leniency. "He's never been in
trouble before," the congressman said, ignoring that his son had tested
positive for cocaine three times while out on bail. The son got 2-and-a-half
years. Cunningham generated enough hypocrisy to light up San Diego, but the
voters always looked the other way.
Even his corrupt conduct taking $2.4 million in bribes from
defense contractors was off the wall. A sane man would have buried that
money in the backyard or hidden it in the Cayman Islands. He instead turned
up with a Rolls-Royce, a yacht, Persian rugs and two antique French
Cunningham sold his house for $1.7 million to a defense
contractor, who then unloaded it at a $700,000 loss. The lawmaker
subsequently bought a $2.6 million house and let another contractor pay off
his $500,000 second mortgage.
The House Ethics Committee wasn't very interested in this, but
any decent investigative reporter could have seen the oddities of this lush
lifestyle. Several did, and so here we are, marveling at Cunningham's
blatant disregard for appearances.
Some readers may note that the man is mentally ill, a point I
would concede. They may take me to task for using such insensitive terms as
"head case," "lunatic" and "screwball." But my heart is hardened. I'm not
working on any insanity defense for Cunningham. Nor have I been moved by his
latest round of blubbering. Cunningham is now out of Congress and needs to
be taken out of general circulation, as well.
The mystery remains: What on earth was in the voters' minds,
year after year? Set aside the recent revelations of official corruption.
Cunningham made the sort of violent remarks, threats and references to his
weaponry that would have gotten a high-school student expelled and the
police notified. Yet the voters are now surprised that he cheated, too. I
just don't get it.