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House lawbreaker

Randy "Duke" Cunningham's fall from Vietnam hero to criminal carries a special sadness

Issue: "Narnia unleashed," Dec. 10, 2005

Ex-Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a Republican from San Diego, spoke briefly with the press as he exited the courthouse where he had entered a plea of guilty to charges of bribery and income tax evasion. "I broke the law, concealed my conduct, and disgraced my high office," Mr. Cunningham stated. "I know I will forfeit my freedom, my reputation, [and] my high office."

Prosecutors said Mr. Cunningham, an eight-term House member, "demanded, sought, and received" $2.4 million worth of cash, goods, and vacations over a five-year period. How the mighty are fallen: Mr. Cunningham is a real military hero, one of the first Vietnam War "aces," and his fearlessness in the cockpit was the stuff of legend, as were his periodic philippics on the House floor.

Maybe the confidence/arrogance that goes with being a Top Gun made Mr. Cunningham tell himself he was above the law or simply incapable of being caught. But he wasn't, and in a republic of laws no one, not even the bravest soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine, can be given a pass, and certainly not elected officials. Right now in Washington, D.C., scandals involving members of both parties demand a lot of coverage and clear commentary from conservatives and liberals alike.

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The prosecution of Tom DeLay appears to be a politically motivated bit of theater that will end up with the former and probably future majority leader exonerated, but the non-politically motivated charges swirling around lobbyist Jack Abramoff may capture up to a half dozen other congressmen in a net of money-related crimes. In every case, the prosecution should be swift and the penalties severe if laws have been broken. We cannot maintain confidence in a country's commitment to the idea of equal justice for all unless powerful thieves or cheaters are quickly exiled from power and made to serve the appropriate jail time.

Still, Duke Cunningham's fall carries a special sadness, because he served his country on missions involving the greatest degree of danger and during which he exhibited the highest degree of personal courage. It is still possible to honor him for that service while recognizing, as he himself did, that there can be no overlooking the seriousness of the crime.

Every other elected official is now warned: If even a war hero will be called to account for his crimes, no one else should expect anything less. The '90s are over.

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