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THOMAS OLIPHANT

The king of congressional corruption

WASHINGTON
THOSE OF US who are true fans of hypocrisy and corruption need to pause and salute Randy Cunningham on his way out of town toward the beckoning slammer.

He was the king, and one can hope the disgraced, now-former California congressman will be the gift that keeps on giving.

Otherwise mere fans will be left with the improbable assertion that this right-wing buffoon went on a defense contractor's arm for the gigantic sum of $2.4 million all by his lonesome in order to steer scores of millions of dollars in military business the guy's way.

Those of us who have derived comic relief from Cunningham's career know that this guy would screw up a two-car motorcade. Frustration looms, however, because the House leadership's ''ethics" machinery has been so completely and intentionally crippled that we will have to depend on the obligation in Cunningham's plea agreement to sing like a canary, and that means depending on Cunningham -- always a lousy bet.

Until he came along, we had to rely for bemusement on garden variety scandals like members taking money from undercover FBI agents posing as rich Arabs, turning postage stamps into cash, or bouncing checks at their credit union.

The most recent exposed crook -- Jim Trafficant, an entertaining Democrat from the Youngstown area in Ohio who had a penchant for hilariously bombastic rhetoric -- went away for hiding no more than 75 grand from his tax return and forcing employees to do work on his farm.

Cunningham left his federal court plea proceeding in tears. Trafficant, at least, had more flair as he was kicked out of the House and sent to the clink. Said the great man: ''When I get out I will grab a sword like Maximus Meridius Demisius (he ruined the name of the Russell Crowe character from ''Gladiator"), and as a gladiator I will stab people in the crotch."

Cunningham, his sentence still to be determined, bemoaned his shame and blubbered through his regrets. They don't make 'em like they used to.

Cunningham was one of the conservative movement's favorite wind-up toys, guaranteed to hold forth whenever it seemed useful to question another public official's patriotism, to disparage minorities be they racial or gay, or to claim the tough guy, masculine upper hand even by challenging colleagues to the fistfights he always seemed to walk away from.

His Republican colleagues rewarded the northern San Diego County congressman with the seat on the Appropriations Committee he used as the platform for his graft. He was, after all, a fighter pilot Vietnam vet, a highly decorated ace at that, and got away for years with making his war record seem synonymous with expertise on military matters and using it as an excuse for his bizarre behavior.

On a trip back to Vietnam a few years ago, he called his hosts ''gooks," he tried to make fun of Representative Barney Frank, and, in a famous moment in the mid-1990s, ran away from a physical challenge by Democratic Representative Jim Moran of Virginia, who chased him off the House floor and into the cloakroom, where Moran found him weeping.

In April 2004, Cunningham and Armed Forces Committee chairman Duncan Hunter of California took to the floor to denounce highly decorated Vietnam vet John Kerry for near treason in turning against the war. Kerry had ''energized the enemy," Cunningham thundered, adding that he voted as if he were Jane Fonda.

What no one knew then was that precisely one week before Cunningham had so loudly defended America, he had defrauded America by failing to disclose two $500,000 payments from the defense contractor on whose pad he served on his income tax returns.

In August 2004, as the defamatory attacks on Kerry were escalating, Cunningham affixed his name to a letter denouncing the Democratic nominee that the Bush campaign arranged. He signed it, according to the federal charging papers, on the same day he was cut two more checks for a half-million dollars.

One of my personal favorites happened during Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign. Cunningham got into the first President Bush's office with three House colleagues (Hunter, Sam Johnson of Texas, and Robert Dornan of California). They urged Bush to make an issue of a brief trip Clinton made to Moscow as a young man in the late 1960s and to suggest he might have been recruited by the KGB.

It would all be hilarious if the government had not charged Cunningham with accepting such a huge amount of money to fix the defense contracting process in recent years.

It takes a lot more than one unguided congressional missile to pull off a stunt like that, which is why -- for once in Cunningham's pathetic political life -- the time may have finally arrived for him to tell the truth.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is oliphant@globe.com.

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