“Look, I'm going to say it one more time . . . We're a nation of law. We adhere to laws. We have laws on the books. You might look at those laws, and they might provide comfort for you.”
-- George W. Bush, 2004
According to The New York Times, Cunningham’s sentence is “the longest ever handed down for a member or former member of Congress in a federal corruption case.” My “comfort” on hearing this was so great that I almost forgot about the war in Iraq, the pending war with Iran, the Dubai ports deal, Hurricane Katrina, the mounting deficit, the shrinking dollar, global warming, the Medicare drug scam, the torture of prisoners, the march of nuclear non-proliferation with our new best friend, India, and the urgent question of which gender-bending films or performances would sweep the Oscars this year. (By the time you read this, of course, we’ll know the answer to that last conundrum. But just as an aside -- God forgive me! -- that was one long gay-cowboy movie.)
Anyhow, ex-Rep. Cunningham, 64, is, or was, a Vietnam war hero, “a Naval pilot ace and ‘Top Gun’ instructor,” as the Times describes him, “who parlayed those experiences into a powerful political career” in the suburbs of San Diego and won eight successive terms in Congress, along with houses, yachts, cars, “gifts,” “a Tiffany statue,” “Bijar rugs,” “rare antiques,” “candelabras” and at least $2.4 million for favors he rendered to “defense contractors.” None of these “contractors,” as far as I know, is currently facing prison, but, then, most of them aren’t as loud and … uh … emotional as Cunningham is.
“In 1992,” says a report in our own Barre-Montpelier Times-Argus, Cunningham “suggested that liberal leaders in the House should be ‘lined up and shot,’” at the same time attacking Bill Clinton as “a traitor to his country” and railing about the presence of “homos” in the military. Even so, he hasn’t stopped crying, blubbering and pleading for mercy since federal prosecutors caught his hand in the till last summer. Now, while invariably described as “disgraced,” Cunningham is also fully repentant -- are you surprised? -- and never-endingly “tearful” in his public appearances.
Really, Cunningham’s just a tearful kind of guy. He wept when he resigned from Congress last November. He wept on the floor of the House three years earlier, when urging his fellow lawbreakers -- excuse me, lawmakers -- to authorize Bush’s invasion of Iraq. He probably weeps when he thinks about General Patton's automobiles, but it ain’t goin’ down in court. Coincident with his prison time, Cunningham’s been ordered to pay more than $1.8 million in back taxes, penalties and interest, and a couple million more in “forfeiture” of his ill-gotten lucre. That would make any congressman weep, n’est-ce pas? Especially if he’s the only one who’s required to do it.
“I rationalized decisions I knew were wrong,” Cunningham confessed on Saturday, “in a halting, cracking voice,” as usual: “No man has ever been more sorry.” He must have been flabbergasted when the judge didn’t buy it, because an apology seems to work for every other “sorry” specimen at that level of jurisprudence -- and with so much money involved!
Hell, most arms merchants don’t even have to say they’re sorry to get what they want. Witness the Pentagon’s recent decision to reimburse Kellogg Brown & Root, a subsidiary of Vice President Dick Cheney’s bombs-and-bullets emporium, Halliburton, for almost every penny it’s bilked from the American taxpayer -- specifically, $250 million in “excessive,” “questionable” and “unjustified” charges incurred in the “reconstruction” of Iraq. Quoting again from The New York Times:
“The Army said in response to questions on Friday that questionable business practices by the subsidiary, Kellogg Brown & Root, had in some cases driven up the company's costs. But in the haste and peril of war, it had largely done as well as could be expected…. Under the type of [no-bid] contract awarded to the company, ‘the contractor is not required to perform perfectly to be entitled to reimbursement.’”
Well, why didn’t Cunningham think of that, instead of bawling his head off when he lost his candelabras? Can’t you just hear it? “I’m sorry, Your Honor. You can question my questionable practices all you want, but in the haste and peril of war I’m not required to perform perfectly, and, god damn it, those Bijar rugs are mine!”
Failing that, Cunningham could have gone back to Vietnam, where “glam rock star” Gary Glitter has just received a penal slap on the wrist for sexually molesting two underage girls in Ho Chi Minh City. Glitter is expected to be out of jail by Christmas. How? By paying $2000 apiece to the girls’ families, along with court costs and “a further 10 million dong” -- unfortunate term, but it amounts to about $850 -- in punitive damages.
“Vietnamese regulation stipulates compensation can reduce psychological damage,” said the judge in the Glitter case, sounding just like a fortune cookie. Now there’s a country that knows justice, not to mention the haste and peril of war. Better luck next time, Duke.
Peter Kurth is the author of international bestselling books including: Anastasia: The Riddle of Anna Anderson, Isadora: A Sensational Life, and a biography of the anti-fascist journalist Dorothy Thompson, American Cassandra: The Life of Dorothy Thompson. His essays have appeared in Salon, Vanity Fair, New York Times Book Review, and many others. Peter lives in Burlington, Vermont. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his website at: www.peterkurth.com/.
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