A publicist who tried to arrange public speaking events in San Diego to coincide with the recent release of my book, Feasting on the Spoils, said he had never seen anything like it. Usually friendly audiences in San Diego suddenly turned cold because of the book’s subject, former Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham. Republican audiences, understandably, wanted nothing to do with it. More surprisingly, Democrats said they didn’t want to be seen as gloating. And even more perplexing, libraries remained grateful for the funding he brought them.
Hopefully I’ll get a warmer reception here at voiceofsandiego.org because I think we still have much to learn from Randy “Duke” Cunningham. It seems everyone I run into these days has a story about Cunningham. A babysitter recalled that Cunningham had spoken to her high school class during his first run for office. A fellow dog owner once had an interesting interaction with his wife. A colleague of my wife’s had worked with him years ago at National University. And so on. For better or worse, Cunningham touched many lives in San Diego.
As it turned out, few people knew just how lost Randy Cunningham had become until he pleaded guilty and admitted taking more than $2.4 million in bribes, including payments on a mansion, a yacht, a Rolls-Royce, and, prosecutors say, a pair of prostitutes in Hawaii. I had been covering the story for The Associated Press. I had been with AP for nearly a decade and ran the small AP bureau in San Diego, which is located on the third floor of the Union-Tribune building in Mission Valley. I saw the Cunningham saga as something deeper, something of a mystery story: What led a patriot to become the most corrupt congressman in U.S. history? What happened to Randy Cunningham?
Whatever he became, he started as a true war hero. He was very, very good in the cockpit. He honed his craft at Top Gun at the former Naval Air Station Miramar, now home to the Third Marine Aircraft Wing. Cunningham and his backseater, Willie Driscoll, remain the U.S. Navy’s only flying aces. That’s no small feat. Becoming an ace opened doors for Cunningham. It introduced him to Tom Cruise and endeared him to Congressman (and presidential candidate) Duncan Hunter, who recruited Cunningham for Congress. But, at the same time, being an ace slowly destroyed him. He did amazing things in battle in the air, but he had trouble dealing with ordinary life back on Earth.
I’ll tell you more in later posts about what I learned about Cunningham and the people who bribed him, but before I do, I’d like to hear from you. I’d like to know how you saw Cunningham. Is the culture of Washington, D.C. to blame for what happened to him? What is it that you find most perplexing about the Duke? A journalism professor of mine at Columbia University once told me that journalism is a dialogue. (He had a heavy New York accent so it sounded like “die-a-lawg.”) It took me a long time to understand what he meant (in more ways than one!). The Internet is teaching journalists how important it is to connect with readers so let me hear from you!