The naval hero of Vietnam era fighter aviation may well go to jail, having admitted to taking bribes to direct federal moneys to favored contractors – potentially against the interests of troops in the field, fighting and dying in another war, in another place. Not just small time venality either: $2.4 million worth.
I’ve met the man, dined at his table, listened to him recount the famous (in our circles anyway) tale about his fifth and final air-to-air victory on the way to becoming the first ace (and only one of two ace crews) of the Vietnam War. It was a story he told well, relished in the telling and had clearly had the opportunity to polish over the years. The way he told the story, it was an epic struggle between himself, as a representative of a free society, and a “Colonel Toom,” noted fighter ace from the NVAF. Because Duke was larger than life, certainly in his own eye as well as in the eyes of others, his final kill would have had to be against a worthy foe – not just some plumber who stumbled in front of his gunsight.
And so that was the tale the way he told it. It was the kind of tale guaranteed to keep a young(er) fighter pilot from a different era in rapt silence, seeing it all in the movements of the big man’s hands.
I’m old enough to have been around to hear the grumbling among some of his contemporaries from that war. Other fighter pilots who said he got lucky. Who said he elbowed his way into fights. People who said that he broke more jets by overstress than he bagged in combat. One guy that insisted that he was never bagged by a SAM at all, but that he ran out of gas after his last kill. I didn’t buy any of it, because I was also smart enough to see that much, if not all that criticsm that came his way was generated by that most elemental of human emotions: Envy. Adam and Eve may have dined from the tree of knowledge, but Cain killed Able because he admired his many-colored coat. And at the end of the day, Duke Cunningham and his backseater, Willy Driscoll, had five MiG kills, and they were aces. And no other fighter pilot in the US Navy could say the same.
Some guys left the war behind them and moved on. They don’t much tell their tales – that all happened a long time ago. Other guys never could put it behind them – the war defined them in some fundamental way, everything in their lives was marked as either before or after. Some guys appear to have done both. John Kerry on one side, certainly the Duke on the other. Guys who moved on, but for whom their service in Vietnam was never very far away from the conversational drift.
Because some people, I think, need to be the hero. To hear the adulation. To tell their stories to audiences rapt in silence. The same thing which drove them to great achievement drives them to attempt even greater things, but everyone has their limits and sometimes people fall short of what they would like to become. Some people peak early.
Two points do not a trend make, but it’s interesting to me that neither Kerry nor Cunningham are celebrated for their long records of legislative achievement. Kerry mostly sat in on investigations, and I imagine that must be a powerful feeling, to look down from that bench to the victim there in the spotlights, knowing that you’re the guy who gets to ask the questions, and it’s up to him to answer them. The Duke mostly brought home the bacon for his district, when he wasn’t making emotional speeches in support of the troops or blustering against those he disagreed with.
When I was kid, people used to ask if I’d rather be famous or rich. Although I found neither option truly compelling (I chose to be a naval officer, after all) I always answered, “rich.” If those were the only choices, it seemed likely to me that wealth would be a twofer. After all, if you get wealthy enough, a kind of fame would be sure to follow. Put the two of them together, you’re going to get a third benefit as well: Power.
The Duke had fame, but it was old. The Duke had power, but he never really wielded it to any notable effect. I guess the final nail might have been the moment when he realized that as a retired commander, even with a congressman’s salary, the Duke would never be rich. Not by the standards of Del Mar. Not by the standards of Rancho Santa Fe.
Flawed then, this hero. Sophocles would have been familiar with the plot.