Sunday, January 15, 2006

Duke Then and Now - Nothing Changed

Months ago we passed on this observation regarding then Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham's 100 to 1, ego to common sense ratio. Well, the intervening months have certainly demonstrated the accuracy of that assessment from a naval officer who had a passing acquaintance with Cunningham during his Vietnam days.

Today the San Diego Union Tribune does more to deconstruct the Cunningham myth.

"Many of the aviators who served with him in the Navy say they're stunned at the scope of Cunningham's admitted misdeeds, though not necessarily surprised that he got himself into trouble in Washington, D.C. He was undone, they say, by the same qualities that made him an effective pilot: a cocky attitude, a sense of entitlement, a mind undistracted by complicated thoughts.

In the Navy there was always someone to keep Cunningham in line and save him from the excesses of his personality, a challenging task in the years after he shot down three enemy planes in a single day.

"It was almost like he was frozen in time right there," said Jack Ensch, 68, a fellow Navy pilot who was shot down over North Vietnam and spent seven months as a prisoner of war. "He hasn't grown up as a person from that day on."

Back in his naval aviator days, Cunningham did show two additional qualities that his bribery conviction confirm: a flair for self-promotion and the desire to trade on his reputation for profit.

"If there was one thing that did interest Cunningham, it was hawking copies of his autobiography. He would keep boxes of the books in his car, selling them at air shows and speaking engagements. On one occasion, Cunningham brought along Clement, one of his junior officers, to help him sell copies at an aviation conference in Long Beach, where Cunningham was scheduled to give a speech.

Hundreds of people bought the book that day, and afterward the two men loaded several bags filled with a few thousand dollars in cash into the car, Clement recalled in a recent interview.

Clement said they didn't get back to San Diego until after midnight. When he arrived for work at the base a few hours later, he found Cunningham waiting for him.

"I'm 50 bucks short," Cunningham said. Clement said Cunningham then ordered him to go back to his house and check his uniform to see if the missing money was in his pockets.

Clement concluded that Cunningham must have spent the wee hours of the morning counting every bill in every bag."

Cunningham's penchant for bullying others and his inability to distinguish fact from fiction were all on display during his navy career.

"He fell into the habit of telling stories that seemed exaggerated or embellished. One fellow Vietnam pilot, Matt Connelly, said he read Cunningham's autobiography and wound up writing notations such as "ridiculous" and "never happened" in the margins.

Connelly, 62, now a retired commercial airline pilot who lives outside San Francisco, called some of the assertions in Cunningham's book "fantasy."

Cunningham also became a fierce guardian of his own legend. During an interview with the "Scream of Eagles" author, Cunningham lost his temper at the suggestion that an enemy plane might have played a role in shooting down his F-4. Cunningham insisted he had been downed by a surface-to-air missile.

"If you print that, I'm coming after you," Cunningham told Wilcox.

For a fighter pilot, the difference between the two scenarios can be extremely significant. Getting shot down by an enemy plane means defeat at the hands of another man.

Connelly, who was flying a quarter-mile away when Cunningham's plane went down, said he never saw a surface-to-air missile in the area and thinks Cunningham was shot down by a MiG. He also disputes Cunningham's contention – contained in his autobiography – that he had to flee four pursuing MiGs while trying to fly back to the ship."

Duke Cunningham. A lazy, self-promoting bully with a strong desire to cash in on his position. It was true when he was in the Navy and it was true of his career in Congress.