Top Gun's Tailspin

Randall (Duke) Cunningham has never been shy about his exploits. When he first ran for Congress in 1990, the former naval aviator wore his leather bomber jacket to campaign rallies and referred to his opponent as a "MiG." Cunningham told audiences that the "Maverick" character played by Tom Cruise in "Top Gun" was based on him, claiming credit for the "hit the brakes and he'll fly by" maneuver depicted in the movie and the scene in which Cruise flies upside down over a Soviet fighter. His campaign brochures showed Cruise posing with him on the set, until Cruise's agent objected.

When Cunningham arrived in Congress on the eve of the first gulf war, he found that other politicians basked in his glow. Staffers called him "Ace" and "the Dukester," and his colleagues would ask questions like "Duke, why is it so hard to knock out a concrete bunker?" He was booked on the "Today" show and profiled in the Los Angeles Times (which wrote, in 1991, "the 49-year-old Cunningham has approached his new job with an affable style that blends 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' with the kind of cockiness that comes from surviving 300 combat missions in Vietnam"). Former congressman Guy Vander Jagt, who was at the time the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, recalls: "He came across as this really gruff but authentic kind of guy who just gave it to you straight. He was a valuable commodity to us."

Congressmen who had once praised Cunningham for his "integrity" weren't returning reporters' phone calls last week. Cunningham had tearfully pleaded guilty to taking more than $2 million in bribes and tax evasion. He was convicted of accepting lavish gifts, including oriental rugs, a yacht, a Rolls-Royce and, for some reason, a 19th-century Louis Philippe commode, or chamber pot. His corruption seemed to be baroque, over the top, out of keeping with most modern influence peddling, which has either been made legal or rendered arcane by clever lawyers. His lawyer, Mark Holscher, was quoted as saying that he had recommended that his client plead guilty because he had "no defense."

In the buttoned-up, fundamentally cautious capital, Cunningham stood out as a gossip columnist's dream. Two women quoted by the Copley News Service depicted Cunningham, a self-described family man, as offering them champagne after changing into pajama bottoms and a turtleneck sweater "to entertain them by the light of his favorite lava lamp." His plea agreement could spell trouble for more discreet lawbreakers. In return for a lighter sentence (perhaps 10 years in prison), Cunningham is cooperating with the Feds. Although his crimes do not appear to be connected to several other corruption scandals bubbling up on Capitol Hill, Cunningham may be in a position to point prosecutors toward hidden pockets of graft, particularly in the realm of peddling federal defense and intelligence contracts.

Cunningham's motives were a source of puzzlement. He was a patriot and deeply proud of the uniform, though he long flirted with disgracing it. He had never appeared particularly interested in money. And if he wanted to get rich, as at least one Hill observer pointed out, all he had to do was retire and become a lobbyist.

Possibly, he succumbed to a sense of entitlement. John Cheshire, a fellow top-gun pilot and Vietnam vet who served with Cunningham, noted that arrogance was a common trait among elite aviators and that Cunningham was more arrogant than most. "We didn't play by the rules; we had our own rules. We got away with everything," Cheshire told NEWSWEEK. "But when you get out, you move on, you grow up. Duke never did. He's still pompous, still child-like, still so full of himself."

He had superb gifts as a combat pilot, shooting down five North Vietnamese MiGs to qualify as an ace. But out of the cockpit, he was not the sort of naval officer destined to make admiral. Known as a rowdy skirt chaser (hardly exceptional in the pre-Tailhook-scandal days of the Navy), he routinely alienated senior officers with his unruly behavior and bluster. He was caught breaking into his commander's office at top-gun school (reportedly to find out why he was low-rated). The Navy couldn't kick out a Vietnam ace without creating a PR embarrassment. Indeed, the Navy used Cunningham as a poster boy, trotting him out to tell aviators-in-training his war stories of derring-do.

Retiring in 1986, Cunningham taught high-school swimming and tried his hand as a small businessman before running for Congress. When the incumbent got caught up in a sexual-harassment scandal, Cunningham won and was immediately tagged as a rising star, sent around the country to raise money for other Republican candidates.

But his loud mouth and macho antics soon put off his colleagues. In 1992 he declared that the Democratic leadership "ought to be lined up and shot. I would have no hesitation about lining them up and shooting them." In 1995, Capitol police had to break up a scuffle with Democratic Congressman James Moran, and Cunningham once challenged another Democrat, David Obey, to a fistfight on the House floor.

His erratic behavior may have roots at home. A fervent supporter of mandatory-minimum jail sentences for drug offenders, he begged for leniency with a federal judge when his adopted son, Todd, was arrested in 1997 for flying 400 pounds of pot across the country (he was sentenced to two and a half years). Cunningham confessed that he had spent little time with him when the boy was growing up and wondered aloud if he were responsible for his troubles.

A year later, Cunningham was diagnosed with prostate cancer and went on a strange jag while addressing some elderly cancer patients at Alvarado Hospital near San Diego. He made an obscene gesture and said "f--- you" to a World War II vet who suggested that defense budgets be lowered. He said that no man would enjoy prostate-cancer treatments, "unless maybe you're Barney Frank." (Congressman Frank said that Cunningham "does not have a high reputation for the thoughtful, analytical content of his remarks. He seems to be more interested in discussing homosexuality than most homosexuals.")

Some of Cunningham's friends wonder if he wasn't trying to work off some guilt about his second wife, Nancy, by showering her with ill-gotten gifts. Beginning in 2001, according to Cunningham's guilty plea, he began using his seat on the House intelligence committee as flypaper for attracting bribes. Before long, he was receiving gifts from high-tech companies with an interest in federal contracts. One of them bought Cunningham's house at an inflated price and provided him with a rent-free yacht to live on in Washington.

Cunningham's greed seems to have coincided with a midlife crisis. "Duke was a changed man after his prostate cancer. He mellowed," said someone who has known Cunningham for two decades but requested anonymity because he did not want to alienate a friend. "I suspect that was at least in part his way of paying back Nancy for all the bad stuff he's ever done in his life. The $1,500 gift certificate for the set of earrings, the leather sofa, the Persian rugs, the French commode, the silver candelabra, the antiques, it all sounds much more like Nancy than Duke." Nancy Cunningham, who did not attend her husband's guilty plea, is not charged with any wrongdoing and has gone to court to keep her interest in a house bought with alleged bribe money. (Neither Cunningham responded to NEWSWEEK's interview requests.)

In the tight fraternity of naval aviators, Cunningham's extreme case of delayed adolescence was always covered up. But his fellow flyboys were not fooled. Last week at the office of the chief of Naval Air Forces in San Diego, a gathering of the Navy's top aviation admirals watched as he confessed at a teary press conference. According to an officer who was there, the admirals were delighted to see Cunningham finally get shot down.