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Rep. Cunningham Denounces Book's Unfavorable Portrait


WASHINGTON — Rep. Randy (Duke) Cunningham, a Vietnam war hero who shot down five enemy planes, has survived one skirmish after another during three terms in Congress.

He had to backpedal after using the term "homos in the military." His attempts to portray President Bill Clinton as a draft-dodging leftist backfired. He once scuffled with a congressional colleague.

And now the conservative Republican from San Diego is defending himself against a new foe, a book that paints the former Navy jet pilot in an unfavorable light.

Only several of the 390 pages of "Fall From Glory: The Men Who Sank the U.S. Navy" mention Cunningham. But they portray a subpar officer who was almost court-martialed for illegal conduct and who nearly refused to attend an awards ceremony because he wasn't getting the Medal of Honor.

Except for that business about the medal, Cunningham dismisses the book as "character assassination."

"It's like when I watch an Oliver Stone movie. It begins with some facts and then goes into innuendo and a perceived agenda from there. . . . Someone writes something about you and you're left out there to refute it."

Cunningham plays a bit role in the book, which takes a historical look at the notorious 1991 Tailhook convention in Las Vegas and other Navy sex scandals. It is written by Gregory L. Vistica, a San Diego Union-Tribune reporter until 1994 and now the national security correspondent for Newsweek magazine.

Most serious is Vistica's report of Cunningham's near-court-martial for riffling through personnel records in a superior's office at "Top Gun," the Navy Fighter Weapons program for the Navy's best pilots at Miramar Naval Air Station. Cunningham was commanding officer of the "adversary squadron," which mimicked Russian aerial tactics for training purposes.

The book said that Cunningham wanted to find out who was rated higher than he was after receiving a "fitness report" that ranked him near the bottom of the officers.

As a bona-fide war hero, Cunningham said he spent considerable time off the base, at the Navy's behest, giving speeches.

"I was asked to compete with all these other 'Top Gun' pilots, but I had to do all these extras, running all over the United States. When I got the ranking . . . I questioned why. . . . I thought that was unfair," Cunningham said Friday night.

But he flatly denies that he went through the files--and never heard of any court-martial being considered against him.

Jack Ready, a former "Top Gun" commanding officer, told the Associated Press that he has no knowledge that Cunningham broke into Ready's office.

The book says Ready and others considered bringing Cunningham before a court-martial, but backed off when they realized that disciplining the war hero and popular public speaker could create a public relations disaster.

The book also derides an attempt by Cunningham in the late 1980s to warn senior officers that the rowdy traditions of the Tailhook convention were a scandal waiting to happen.

"For him to raise a fuss was like the pot calling the kettle black," Vistica wrote, saying that those on cruises with him described Cunningham as a womanizer who had been picked up by the Shore Patrol several times for drunkenness.

"I categorically deny that I have ever been picked up, arrested by any Shore Patrol . . . anywhere, any time, on any cruise anywhere or here in the States," Cunningham said. "I was not a womanizer and never busted for drinking. . . ."

Cunningham did confirm the anecdote about threatening to boycott an awards ceremony after learning that he would not receive the Medal of Honor.

"I was told I was going to get the Medal of Honor a couple of days before the ceremony," Cunningham said.

When he found out that it would be the Navy Cross, the second-highest medal, Cunningham said he wanted "to check with Washington to find out why it was downgraded."

"But I was told, 'Duke, you got to take this thing.' [If I didn't] it would be an embarrassment to the Navy."

The book is the latest in a string of controversies--rhetorical and otherwise--that have dogged his career.

In May, he apologized--sort of--to a group of gay activists for a statement that he made on the House floor during debate on easing restrictions in the Clean Air Act.

He called opponents of the revisions--many of them liberal Democrats--"the same people who would vote to cut defense $177 billion, the same ones who would put homos in the military."

"If the term 'homos in the military' is offensive, then I apologize and I will not use it again," said Cunningham, who surprised members of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, a gay and lesbian political group, by showing up at a news conference called to condemn him.

But Cunningham did take the opportunity to reassert his belief that gays in the armed forces "degrade" military readiness.

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