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The Life and Times of Randy “Duke” Cunningham, History’s Most Corrupt Congressman

by Seth Hettena

Pub Date: July 1st, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-312-36829-6
Publisher: St. Martin's

Former Associated Press reporter Hettena dissects one of the decade’s most notorious political scandals.

Examining disgraced congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham’s fall from power, the author unearths subtle minutiae of corruption that add up to a cautionary tale. With a keen journalist’s eye buttressed by extensive legwork, Hettena illuminates Cunningham’s political demise in measured, focused segments that take the reader from a nail-biting FBI raid on his multimillion-dollar mansion in San Diego to the bleak realities of his current life as a federal inmate serving eight years for his crimes. The book incorporates interviews with more than 200 people directly or indirectly involved in Cunningham’s life. Hettena delves most significantly into his well-reported exploits as an ace combat pilot during Vietnam and his vengeful bitterness at being denied a Congressional Medal of Honor. (He received the slightly less prestigious Navy Cross.) These early experiences may have shaped Cunningham’s massive self-rationalizations later in life, the author suggests: “Combat framed Cunningham’s entire political life…Democrats were just another MiG to be shot down.” In this assessment, such virtues as the congressman’s prescient rebuke of the Tailhook Association don’t balance the books against sleazy behavior like the smear campaign he ran during his first election or the hateful outbursts on the House floor that revealed him to be a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot. Hettena’s damning but well-rounded portrait suggests that Cunningham’s 1998 diagnosis with prostate cancer was a significant turning point in his life, after which he increasingly cut corners in the name of self-interest and allowed himself to be exploited by a series of ambitious defense contractors who padded his pockets to the tune of $2.4 million.

Not much consideration of the broader implications here, but this chronicle of Cunningham’s deliberate duplicity certainly has the power to shock.