California’s ‘Duke’ Heads to the Pokey

120505 article conason California’s ‘Duke’  Heads to the PokeyFor a crude bully who used to bray about lining up Democrats and anti-war protesters to be “shot,” Randy (Duke) Cunningham cried like a little baby the other day when he finally admitted taking millions in bribes from defense contractors.

Forced to resign his office immediately as part of his plea bargain with federal prosecutors, the once-powerful California Congressman, whose leverage derived from his chairmanship of an important defense subcommittee, was a dominant type in the Republican Party of this era.

During his career on Capitol Hill, Mr. Cunningham’s style was loud, mindlessly reactionary and full of flag-waving bluster. He once described Bill Clinton as a “traitor” and compared Senator John Kerry to Jane Fonda on the House floor.

This hyper-patriotic scoundrel also turned out to be avaricious, deceptive and as eager to sell himself as a male escort. He misused his authority to steer federal contracts to the contractors who bribed him, and he doesn’t seem to have hesitated to damage the national interest if his personal interests were served.

Among the items acquired by Mr. Cunningham, thanks to the illicit generosity of his friends in the defense industry, were a hillside mansion with pool in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.; a yacht called “The Dukestir”; a Rolls-Royce sedan, plus repairs; a 17th-century Louis-Philippe commode, along with assorted other antiques and Oriental carpets; and roughly $1.8 million in cash considerations, plus hundreds of thousands in the usual campaign contributions. He also avoided paying federal income taxes, as most crooks tend to do.

In short, he peddled his principles and his patriotism rather cheaply.

Yet while the disgraced Duke may be the most ostentatiously greedy member of the House, his sleazy story is but a single episode in the expanding saga of Republican scandal. As he pondered his next term—which he will serve in a federal correctional institution—another high-rolling crook on Capitol Hill confessed to corrupting Congress.

That would be Michael Scanlon, the former communications director for former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who pleaded guilty to felony fraud for his role in helping super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff to relieve several Indian tribes of about $80 million while lobbying to improve their gambling businesses. The cooperation provided by Mr. Scanlon to the Justice Department is expected to embroil no fewer than a half-dozen other members of Congress and a squad of current and former staffers like him.

Many more politicians may ultimately be implicated in Mr. Abramoff’s influence-peddling scam, however, with the slime rising to the top of the leadership both inside and outside the Congress. Former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed profited handsomely from the Abramoff gambling boodle, as did Grover Norquist, the conservative strategist, lobbyist and unofficial aide to White House political boss Karl Rove. House Speaker Dennis Hastert performed favors for Abramoff clients and collected more than $100,000 in campaign contributions from the lobbyist’s firm and clients since 2001.

On a single June evening two years ago, according to the Associated Press, the Speaker’s Keep Our Majority political-action committee took in more than $20,000 from the Abramoff network at a fund-raiser in a Washington restaurant owned by the lobbyist. A week later, Mr. Hastert and several of his top deputies sent a letter to the Secretary of the Interior, asking her to disapprove a gambling license sought by a tribe competing with one of Mr. Abramoff’s clients. While the Speaker’s spokesman insists there was no connection between his actions and the money steered into his accounts, such indignant assertions now provoke knowing smiles even among Republicans.

Indeed, thoughtful Republicans are well aware that the typical complaints and excuses proffered by their leaders and pundits sound utterly false these days. This swelling tsunami of scandal cannot be attributed to partisan enemies or the “liberal media.”

The Abramoff schemes were aired in public hearings chaired by Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican. The Cunningham scams came to light in a brilliant investigation by the conservative Copley News Service, whose featured columnists include Jack Kemp and Phyllis Schlafly. The criminal prosecutions of Mr. Scanlon, Mr. Cunningham and many others yet to be indicted are the work of prosecutors answerable to a Republican Attorney General.

Has the capital been infected by a “culture of corruption”? That culture has existed for well over a century, in both parties, at least since Mark Twain described Congress as America’s only native criminal class. Before the Republicans won control of the House in 1994, its Democratic overlords had certainly proved capable of self-dealing and misconduct. A few of them went to jail, too.

What has happened since then seems unprecedented, however—at least during the postwar era. The sale of influence has been institutionalized in ways that earlier generations of politicians never imagined. Friends of Newt Gingrich—not a morally squeamish man—say he is dismayed. Members of the generation he brought to power are not revolutionaries but grifters, who have made a bad situation much worse.