Never before Wednesday's ceremony giving them the Congressional Gold Medal had so many fighter-pilot "aces" been together in the Capitol Building. Thirty-five of the 75 living aces were there. But the one ace who used to work in the building, the one who is perhaps best known to the public, was not there. In fact, disgraced former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham was not even invited, despite his five air kills over the skies of Vietnam.
Cunningham, a Republican, represented a San Diego district in the House for 14 years until his resignation in 2005 shortly after he pleaded guilty to tax evasion, accepting more than $2.4 million in bribes, mail fraud, and wire fraud. Now 73, Cunningham spent more than seven years in a federal prison before his early release in 2013. He now lives quietly in a gated community in Arkansas.
As a member of Congress, Cunningham never let anyone forget that he was the Navy's only ace in Vietnam. He frequently claimed—wrongly—that he was the model for the Tom Cruise character "Maverick" in the movie Top Gun. He often turned that Top Gun allure into cash for the GOP, proving to be one of the party's top fundraisers. But that all ended when he became better known as the most corrupt member of Congress ever caught and received his 100-month sentence, at the time the longest prison sentence ever given to a congressman.
And no one either in Congress or in the fighter Ace community wanted him detracting from what was a very moving ceremony. "Mr. Cunningham did not attend the ceremony today," confirmed Lee Keller, a spokesman for Seattle's Museum of Flight, which gathered the aces for the ceremony.
"Additionally," Keller said, "he was not invited in the first place. So he had no opportunity to decline. The American Fighter Aces Association has disassociated themselves with him, and he is not involved in any of their activities."
Congressional leaders wanted the spotlight on the heroes who had brought honor to their country, not to a man returning to the scene of the crime, the building where he wrote his infamous "bribe menu" and used his positions on the House Appropriations and Intelligence committees to steer lucrative contracts to those who would bankroll his extravagant lifestyle and buy him 19th-century French antiques, yachts, Persian rugs, hunting trips, and a Rolls-Royce.
"It was an incredible ceremony that appropriately honored these American heroes," said Keller. "Their numbers are shrinking, and I am just so glad that we're able to honor those that could make this trip here today."
House Speaker John Boehner said the Gold Medal "celebrates not just what they did, but how they did it—with daring, with devotion to live what Teddy Roosevelt called 'the strenuous life.' It reaffirms that nothing worth fighting for ever comes easy. And it embodies the thanks of a grateful nation."