The Wrong Stuff: The Extraordinary Saga of Randy “Duke” Cunningham, the Most Corrupt Congressman Ever Caught
Marcus Stern, Jerry Kammer, Dean Calbreath and George E. Condon Jr.; Public Affairs, 326 pages, $25.95
Reviewed by Brian E. Adams
June 3, 2007
Members of Congress make $165,200 a year. This is a significant sum, but it is a pittance next to the incomes of the lobbyists and corporate executives who interact with members of Congress. Noting this fact, many leave their elective position after a few terms to become lobbyists (or, in some case, corporate executives), attempting to influence their former colleagues. Unseemly as this may seem, it's a perfectly legal way for members of Congress to double or triple their incomes.
Which is what makes the Randy “Duke” Cunningham case so interesting. Cunningham, the former congressman from North San Diego County, pleaded guilty in 2005 to accepting bribes and is currently serving time in a federal prison. Contrary to public perceptions, few members of Congress pursue the path of such blatant illegal activity, not because they have a strong ethical sense, necessarily, but because there are plenty of legal ways for them to benefit financially from their tenure as an elected official.
So if Cunningham wanted to buy a $2 million house, why didn't he simply retire from Congress and become a lobbyist like so many of his colleagues?
“The Wrong Stuff,” by the Copley News Service and San Diego Union-Tribune reporters who broke the story – and won a Pulitzer prize – provides an answer. The book paints a vivid picture of Cunningham as a fundamentally flawed individual, with an oversized ego, an insatiable appetite for material wealth and a complete lack of ethical standards. This is not a parable about a good person corrupted by the evil ways of Washington.
Cunningham always lacked ethical standards, even when he was being lionized as a war hero in the early 1970s. And he didn't go to Washington as a crusader for noble causes; he sought public office for self-fulfillment. It was a career choice that fit nicely with his need for power, adulation and attention.
Even at the beginning of his tenure, Cunningham put his personal needs before those of his constituents. He preferred to stay in Congress and go the route of illegal activity not just because of an an absence of ethical standards; his sense of invincibility and, let us say, limited intellectual capacity blinded him to the pitfalls that would eventually bring him down.
Cunningham's corruption was made possible, or at least, easier, by “earmarking,” which allows members of Congress to insert pet projects into the federal budget. “The Wrong Stuff” does an excellent job of exploring how the earmarking process works.
Scholars, reporters and reformers have for decades been highlighting the corrupt practices used to divvy up the federal budget. But despite treading on well-worn ground, this book is insightful in its close examination of the process of earmarking for intelligence contracts, and the game played by defense contractors to enrich themselves at government expense. The authors insinuate that, in addition to wasting taxpayer money, the cozy relationships between elected officials and defense contractors ultimately jeopardizes national security, and they are probably right.
In the epilogue, the authors tick off a list of people to blame for the Cunningham scandal. Besides the obvious – Cunningham and his co-conspirators – they identify other members of Congress, President Bush, journalists, Cunningham's wife and the Navy. All worthy of blame, but they neglect one culprit: the public. Most Americans seem to have the notion that being a brave war hero – which Cunningham undoubtedly was – is connected to high ethical standards.
Had his constituents not been so taken by Cunningham's heroism, perhaps they would have asked whether this man was suited to serve in Congress, and cast a more critical eye on his flaws, which were apparent well before the scandal reached the newspapers. Blaming politicians, the press and corrupt businessmen is an easy way out; ultimately, we elect these people, and it's clear we dropped the ball on this one. Some introspection among his constituents as to how they could support such a crooked and so obviously less-than-intelligent politician for so long, despite so many red flags, would perhaps do them good.