We do not know if Randy “Duke” Cunningham was a crook all his life or just carried the seed, but we know that he looked around after three score years and decided it was time to get his, the American people be damned.
If the Republican congressman from San Diego harbored the lust for ill-gotten gain, he seems to have kept it in check even in Congress for a decade or more, until three or four years ago, when the opportunities were suddenly so pervasive that it was impossible to resist.
It was about the time that greed became the national doctrine. A new president and vice president, who had been given a leg up to easy fortunes and thought they had earned them, took power and set out to unleash the engine of personal wealth to advance national power. Taxes were cut over and over for the rich, policy making was handed to the rich commercial interests, and corporate friends were given the rewards of every government activity, including energy and environmental initiatives, the expansion of Medicare and even war.
So Duke Cunningham resigned his seat in Congress this week, cried and said he was ashamed after copping a plea to charges that he took $2.4 million in bribes to help friendly businessmen and Republican campaign contributors win defense contracts with the Bush administration and then evaded taxes on the haul.
Republican control of Congress and the executive branch of government had elevated Cunningham to modest power. He was a high-ranking majority member of the Appropriations Committee with connections to big Republican lobbyists. The old Navy pilot, a tough-talking religious-righter who said war protesters and liberal politicians should be machined-gunned and that he wouldn’t mind doing it himself, began to flaunt his wealth so flagrantly with cars, luxurious homes, a yacht, antiques and opulent rugs that the San Diego daily newspaper got on his trail. Then the prosecutor.
Should George W. Bush get blamed for this, too, one arrogant Republican congressman who succumbed to weakness? The president and Dick Cheney may have lost the confidence of the vast majority of Americans, but not at this point for their personal greed. It is their incompetence and inability to be truthful that people dislike, according to the polls.
But if every manifestation of flabby moral tone in the 1990s reflected the “clintonculture,” as the local paper loved to call it, it is not too forward to point out that all the current Washington bribery and influence-peddling scandals happen to fall within the ambient value of the administration, greed.
Can you imagine George Bush telling Congress, as Franklin D. Roosevelt did in 1936, “we have earned the hatred of entrenched greed”? Or the hooting if he did?
Duke Cunningham is merely the most pathetic and dimwitted of the bushculturists to fall into the clutches of the law.
There is his benefactor, Tom DeLay, who resigned as House majority leader this fall after he was indicted on charges of conspiracy and money laundering. The investigations continue. Charges are lodged weekly against congressmen, other government officials and Republican lobbyists in wide-ranging investigations of Jack Abramoff, the grasping lobbyist who was DeLay’s right hand.
Michael Scanlon, a former aide to DeLay, pled guilty last week to a conspiracy to help Abramoff defraud Indian tribes of $82 million and bribe Republican members of Congress. He is cooperating in an investigation into the activities of at least a dozen congressmen, their spouses and aides. Bush’s chief procurement officer, David Safavian, was indicted last month for obstruction of justice for his role in the scams.
The biggest congressionnal beneficiary of the rip-off of the tribes was Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont. Forty-two percent of his campaign funds in 2000-2002 came from tribe gifts arranged by Abramoff and Scanlon. Burns showed his thanks by pressuring the Interior Department to send a $3 million federal grant — that’s your money, by the way — to one tribal interest.
Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, is the target of separate public-corruption probes in Washington and Florida. To curry favor with the House Republican leader, Ney attacked a Florida businessman who was trying to sell his floating casinos and then had the payoff, a $10,000 gift from the casinos’ new owner, laundered to DeLay’s congressional campaign committee in his name.
Sen. Bill Frist, the Senate Republican leader, is under investigation for insider trading for selling off his millions in the giant family business just before its stock went south. It was nothing new to Frist. In 2000, he took $1 million of gifts to his election campaign and invested it in the stock market, just in time for the Bush crash.
Then there is DeLay’s handpicked successor as majority leader, Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who tried to secretly insert a provision into the homeland security bill in 2003 to benefit Phillip Morris at the expense of competitors after he divorced his wife and shortly before he married Phillip Morris’ lobbyist. Then he helped a big campaign contributor, United Parcel Service, which had hired his son as a lobbyist, get Iraqi war contracts by inserting provisions in an emergency appropriation to shut out UPS’ competitors.
Rep. John T. Doolittle, R-Calif., another DeLay-Abramoff acolyte, is under investigation for hiding gifts in his filings with the Federal Election Commission.
When their party and their friends seemed to run everything, including the courts, men began to think that there did not have to be a payday. It turns out they were wrong.