In this, his latest battle, Randy “Duke” Cunningham found himself surrounded by MiGs.
They were not piloted by a foreign enemy this time, but by federal prosecutors from the nation he had first sworn to protect in the 1960s, and which in Vietnam he had done so with honor, distinction and courage.
In this battle, the U.S. government, if not having superior firepower, certainly had overwhelming evidence against him. Randy Cunningham had no choice but to surrender.
I first met Cunningham in the late 1980s after his retirement from the Navy and Top Gun. He was being touted as a potential candidate, and clearly had the credentials.
He was speaking to some now-forgotten group of Republicans, but I remember his story. It was the first of many times I heard it in the subsequent years. How, upon landing on an aircraft carrier after he and Willie Driscoll downed an enemy fighter, one of the deck crew ran up to him and exclaimed, “We got our MiG today!”
Duke used the story often to emphasize teamwork; that it wasn’t just about him and Lt. Driscoll, it was about every man on that deck, in the hull of the carrier, and at command and control , and that was the same attitude we needed if we were to successfully fight in life. Eventually, for Congressman Cunningham, it didn’t end up being about teamwork, but about personal gain.
Shortly after that first meeting, but before his successful 1990 run for Congress, I ran into him at , of all places , the El Cajon Swap Meet on a Saturday morning, hawking his self-published-looking book “Fox Two” for a couple of bucks out of the trunk of his car. This was the beginning of marketing efforts for Top Gun Enterprises (which years later would also get him in trouble).
Shirt off, in a beach chair, he had the relaxed look of a guy who was finally getting used to being out of the military and could relax. He was friendly, unpretentious, seemingly without a care in the world.
Sixteen years later he would admit guilt and resign from Congress, amid great scandal.
The most significant irony is that a man of his strategic training, the naval ace of the Vietnam War, would have chosen to put himself in this situation.
John Dadian, himself a former Marine, nailed it in the Los Angeles Times: “It is unbelievable that a man who showed so much courage in time of war could lose his moral compass so badly when he went into politics. Even those of us who have been around politics for ages are stunned at the brazenness of this.”
For Cunningham, the resulting question may be reflective of a David Byrne lyric: “And you may ask yourself: Well … how did I get here?” How, exactly, did a man who once put his life on the line by bravely defending his country, go from choosing to make a few dollars out of the trunk of his car, to choosing to make millions in bribes as a U.S. congressman?
There is only one answer, and Lord Acton said it: “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Yet, if absolute power does in fact mean surrendering one’s soul, perhaps the best remedy is to surrender one’s freedom as well.
“In my life,” Cunningham said recently, “I have known great joy and great sorrow. And now I know great shame. I learned in Vietnam that the true measure of a man is how he responds to adversity. I cannot undo what I have done. But I can atone.
“I am now almost 65 years old and, as I enter the twilight of my life, I intend to use the remaining time that God grants me to make amends. The first step in that journey is to admit fault and apologize. The next step is to face the consequences of my actions like a man. Today, I have taken the first step and, with God’s grace, I will soon take the second.”
“With God’s grace.” My hope for Randy Cunningham is that he truly means it, and my prayer for him and his family would be the same grace and courage God provided him in Vietnam.
Barry Jantz is a member of the La Mesa City Council and a regular contributor to the FlashReport.org.