Say It Ain't So, Duke
By streiff Posted in User Blogs — Comments (16) / Email this page » / Leave a comment »
According to sports legend, a young boy walked up to the dishonored "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, a ringleader of the 1919 Chicago "Black Sox," and utter the soul-rending condemnation: "Say it ain't so, Joe."
Jackson couldn't say it wasn't so, because sadly it was manifestly so and being whatever else he was Joe Jackson wasn't a shameless liar.
In the end, that might be all we can say in the defense of disgraced Representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham.
In a era when self-serving twits like John Kerry are referred to as "war heroes," debasing for all time the meaning of the word, Duke Cunningham was a true hero and a virtuoso at the stick of the "Jaybird", the F-4J Phantom II.
In a war where the opposing air force could and did challenge American air power and reduced the kill ratio in aerial combat to a paltry 2-to-1 in favor of US pilots early in the war, Duke was part of the cadre of fighter pilots generated by the Navy's Fighter Weapons Course that increased that ratio to 12.7-to-1 in the last three years of the war.
Let's return to May 10, 1972. Lieutenant Duke Cunningham was flying a VF-96 F-4J with the callsign Showtime 100 based aboard the USS Constellation. On May 8, Cunningham and his Radar Intercept Officer, Lieutenant (jg) Willie Driscoll had shot down a MiG-17, NATO code-named FRESCO.
Cunningham and Driscoll were participating in a strike on the Haiphong railyards as a part of Operation LINEBACKER.
[...] Showtime 100 loitered to cover the A-7 fighter-bombers still engaged. Responding to a call for help, Cunningham took his F-4J into a group of MiG-17s ("Frescoes"), two of which promptly jumped them. Heeding a "break" warning from [LT Brian] Grant in Showtime 113, Cunningham broke sharply and the lead pursuing MiG-17 overshot him. He instantly reversed his turn, putting the MiG dead ahead; he loosed a Sidewinder and it destroyed the MiG. [...]
His conduct over six years, as spelled out Friday by federal prosecutors seeking a maximum 10-year prison sentence, was unflinchingly mercenary, especially as it pertained to his love of extravagant living and expensive toys. Once, he demanded the use of a private jet to take him yacht shopping, with no intention of paying for either.
VF-96 Exec[utive Officer], CDR Dwight Timm hasd three MiGs on his tail, one being very close, in Timm's blind spot. Seeing the danger to the XO, in Showtime 112, Duke called for him to "break," to clear the Phantom's hotter J-79 engines from the Sidewinder's heat seeker, thus permitting a clear lock on the bandit. But Timm thought the warning was about the other two, distant MiGs, and didn't heed Duke's first call.
But for all the instances of free dinners and French commodes, what stands out most about the Republican ex-congressman in the government sentencing memorandum is his insatiability.
However much Cunningham had, he hungered for more.
After more maneuvering, Cunningham re-engaged the MiG-17 still threatening his XO. He called again for him to break, adding, "If you don't break NOW you are going to die." The XO finally accelerated and broke hard right. The MiG couldn't follow Showtime 112's high speed turn, leaving "Duke" clear to fire.
Calling "Fox Two," Cunningham fired his second Sidewinder while the MiG still inside the minimum firing range. But the high speed of the Fresco worked against it, as the Sidewinder had time to arm and track to its target. It homed into the tail pipe of the MiG-17 and exploded. Seconds later, Cunningham and Driscoll, finding themselves alone in a sky full of bandits, disengaged and headed for the Constellation.
That $2.4 million in bribes he took from friendly defense contractors - those who were benefiting from his influence in two powerful congressional committees - was amassed through sheer persistence. If Cunningham wasn't chipping away at them with demands for more cash, he was engineering circumstances in which they could come to his assistance by paying his bills.
As they approached the coast at 10,000 feet, Cunningham spotted another MiG-17 heading straight for them. He told Driscoll to watch how close they could pass the MiG's nose, so he could not double back as easily to their six o'clock. While this tactic worked against A-4s back in training at Miramar, it turned out to be a near-fatal mistake here. ... A-4s didn't have guns in the nose.
The MiG's nose lit up like a Roman candle! Cannon shells shot past their F-4. Duke pulled up vertically to throw off his aim. As he came out of the six-G pull-up, he looked around below for the MiG. MiGs generally avoided climbing contests. They turned horizontally, or just ran away. He looked back over his ejection seat and was shocked. There was the MiG barely 100 yards away! He began to feel numb and his stomach knotted, as both jets roared 8,000 feet straight up.
He transformed the genteel hobby of collecting antiques into a compulsion. Repeated shopping excursions with one contractor netted him more furniture and rugs than could fit comfortably into his Virginia condominium.
In an effort to out-climb the MiG, Cunningham went to afterburners, which put him above the enemy aircraft. As he started to pull over the top, the MiG began shooting. This was Cunningham's second near-fatal mistake; he had given his opponent a predictable flight path, and he had taken advantage of it. Duke rolled off to the other side, and the MiG closed in behind.
Not wanting to admit he was getting beaten, he called to Willie, "That S.O.B. is really lucky! All right, we'll get this guy now!" With the MiG at his four o'clock, he nosed down to pick up speed and energy. Cunningham watched until the MiG pilot likewise committed his nose down. "Gotcha!" he thought, as he pulled up into the MiG, rolled over the top, got behind it. While too close to fire a missile, the maneuver placed Duke in an advantageous position. [...]
As they slowed to 200 knots, the MiG's superior maneuverability at low speed would gave him more advantage. A good fighter pilot, like Kenny Rogers' poker player, "knows when to hold, and knows when to fold." This was the MiG's game; it was time to go. When the MiG raised his nose for the next climb, Cunningham lit his afterburners and, at 600 knots airspeed, quickly got two miles away from the MiG, out of his ATOLL missile range.
Even a "bribe menu" that Cunningham developed to simplify transactions - with each additional million dollars in federal contracts netting him either $25,000 or $50,000 in bribes - apparently did not relieve the bribing party of additional obligations.
A forensic psychiatrist hired by Cunningham's defense team attributes this relentless pursuit of wealth to his "sense of grandiosity" and "entitlement," and his recklessness to his sense of "invulnerability."
But maybe Duke wasn't such a good poker player, because he went back for more. Cunningham nosed up 60 degrees, the MiG stayed right with him. Just as before, they went into another vertical rolling scissors.
As the advantage swung back and forth, Driscoll called, "Hey, Duke, how ya doin' up there? This guy really knows what he's doin'. Maybe we ought to call it a day."
This enraged Duke; some "goomer" had not only stood off his attacks but had gained an advantage twice! Not what he wanted to tell his squadron mates back on the Constellation.
"Hang on, Willie. We're gonna get this guy!"
"Go get him, Duke. I'm right behind you!"
Driscoll strained to keep sight of the MiG, as Duke pitched back towards him for the third time.
Once again, he met the MiG-17 head-on, this time with an offset so he couldn't fire his guns. As he pulled up vertically he could again see his determined adversary a few yards away. Still gambling, Cunningham tried one more thing. He yanked the throttles back to idle and popped the speed brakes, in a desperate attempt to drop behind the MiG. But, in doing so, he had thrown away the Phantom's advantage, its superior climbing ability. And if he stalled out ...
Even in their narrow legal presentation, prosecutors illustrate the obsessive nature of Cunningham's quest for enrichment.
Take the case of a 1999 Chevy Suburban that Cunningham purchased in 2003 from defense contractor Mitchell Wade for $10,000, well below its Blue Book value.
A senior member of Cunningham's staff found out about the transaction and, according to the sentencing memo, "was deeply troubled by the sales price and the seller."
"When the staff member raised the matter with the congressman, Cunningham furiously slammed his hand on his desk, twice, and yelled at the staffer to 'Stay the f--- out of my personal business,' " the document reads.
The MiG shot out in front of Cunningham for the first time, the Phantom's nose was 60 degrees above the horizon with airspeed down to 150 knots. He had to go to full burner to hold his position. The surprised enemy pilot attempted to roll up on his back above him. Using only rudder to avoid stalling the F-4, he rolled to the MiG's blind side. He tried to reverse his roll, but as his wings banked sharply, he briefly stalled the aircraft and his nose fell through. Behind the MiG, but still too close for a shot. "This is no place to be with a MiG-17," he thought, "at 150 knots... this slow, he can take it right away from you."
Now the MiG tried to disengage; he pitched over the top and started straight down. Cunningham pulled hard over, followed, and maneuvered to obtain a firing position. With the distracting heat of the ground, Cunningham wasn't sure that a Sidewinder would home in on the MiG, but he called "Fox Two," and squeezed one off. The missile came off the rail and flew right at the MiG. He saw little flashes off the MiG, and thought he had missed. As he started to fire his last Sidewinder, there was an abrupt burst of flame. Black smoke erupted from the Fresco. It didn't seem to go out of control; the fighter just kept slanting down, smashing into the ground at about 45 degrees angle.
Cunningham used a similar ploy with the used Rolls-Royce he bought in 2002 with $10,000 given to him by Wade. Wade also paid thousands of dollars to restore the vehicle, which was housed in the congressional parking garage, and then "purchased" it from Cunningham for even more money, though he never received title to the vehicle.
As the noose began to tighten around Cunningham last year, he falsified evidence and tampered with witnesses in an attempt to obstruct the federal investigation, according to the sentencing memo.
In this endgame stage, Cunningham tried to convince an antique dealer that she had watched him give Wade $35,000 in cash before Wade purchased antiques for him. The dealer said she had witnessed no such thing.
He also sent a belated $16,500 check to a rug dealer who had been paid by Wade, concocting a story about having been unable to find an invoice when the rugs arrived in his Escondido office. The rug dealer told investigators that Wade had clearly paid for the rugs, and that they were shipped with packing labels that carry the store's address.
Cunningham, according to the memo, "then preposterously suggested that he had previously sent a check for the rugs that had been returned because he had the wrong address."
A tearful, trembling Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe) resigned Monday after pleading guilty to receiving $2.4 million in bribes from military contractors and evading more than $1 million in taxes.
The money involved makes Cunningham's the largest bribery case since several members of Congress were convicted of the crime in the early 1980s.
The downfall of Cunningham, an eight-term congressman and decorated Navy fighter pilot from the Vietnam War, began with revelations about the sale of his house in Del Mar Heights to a military contractor at an inflated price two years ago.
But in a plea agreement, Cunningham admitted a pattern of bribery going back to 2000, with contractors supplying him with Persian carpets, silver candelabras, a Rolls-Royce, antique furniture, travel and hotel expenses, use of a yacht and a lavish graduation party for his daughter.
In return, Cunningham used his high-ranking position in Congress -- he served on the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee and the House Intelligence Committee -- to "influence the appropriations of funds and the execution of government contracts."
"I broke the law, concealed my conduct and disgraced my high office," Cunningham, 63, said outside the federal courthouse. "I know I will forfeit my freedom, my reputation [and] my high office." Cunningham left without answering questions.
That is cold comfort to those of us who though Duke Cunningham a hero. He was a thief. He sold his honor for barely more than a pittance. When under suspicion he cheated and lied. At least with his guilty plea he redeemed some small part of his lost honor.
Maybe that small mercy, in time, will let more of us who fought in Vietnam vicariously through the exploits of Robbie Risner, Robin Olds, and Steve Ritchie to remember Duke Cunningham as the fearless fighter jock locked in deadly combat with a superlative enemy pilot flying a more maneuverable aircraft and eschewing the chance to break off the action, to remember Duke Cunningham nursing a mortally wounded Showtime 100 back to the USS Contellation and asking his RIO, "Willie, how long can you tread water?" before punching out into the South China Sea.
Maybe we'll eventually remember that Duke rather than the cheap, grasping little weasel who peddled his office shamelessly.