Cunningham was born in Los Angeles, but grew up in Shelbina, Missouri. After receiving his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Missouri in 1964 and 1965, Cunningham spent a year as a swimming coach in Hinsdale, Illinois before joining the United States Navy in 1966. He eventually became a pilot. During his service, Cunningham became the first Navy ace in the Vietnam War, flying an F-4 Phantom from aboard aircraft carriers, and recording five confirmed kills, making him one two U.S. pilots to “Ace”. He allegedly also downed a Vietnamese fighter ace who flew a MiG-17 against him, although whether it was Cunningham’s shot which downed the plane and whether a Vietnamese ace was truly aboard the MiG are disputed by some. Returning from Vietnam in 1972, he became an instructor at the Navy’s TOPGUN school for fighter pilots at Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego. Many of his real-life experiences in combat and as an instructor were depicted in the popular 1986 movie Top Gun, although the movie’s producer says it was not based on any specific aviator. In 1985 Cunningham earned a MBA from National University, a San Diego night school. He retired from the Navy in 1987, but success eluded him in business or teaching. In 1990 he got his break during the Persian Gulf War. He became nationally known as a CNN commentator on naval aircraft during the war against Iraq.
Cunningham’s noteriety as a CNN commentator led several Republican leaders to approach him about running in California’s 44th Congressional District. The district had been held for eight years by Democrat Jim Bates, and was considered the most Democratic district in the San Diego area. However, Bates was bogged down in a scandal involving charges of sexual harassment. Cunningham won the Republican nomination and hammered Bates about the scandal. He won by just a point, meaning that the San Diego area was represented entirely by Republicans for only the second time since the city was split into two districts after the 1960 census.
Cunningham once referred to a political opponent as a “homo,” and attacked a Democrat member of the House as a “socialist,” an epithet in the United States. Cunningham is often compared by liberal interest groups to former congressman Bob Dornan, with some justification; both are ardent conservatives, both are former military pilots, and both have become infamous for outbursts against perceived enemies.
In September 1996 Cunningham attacked President Bill Clinton for appointing “soft on crime” judges. “We must get tough on drug dealers,” he said. “Those who peddle destruction on our children must pay dearly.” He favored stiff drug penalties and voted for the death penalty for major drug dealers. Four months later, his son Todd was arrested for helping to transport 400 pounds (181 kg) of marijuana from Massachusetts to California.
At his son’s sentencing hearing, Cunningham fought back tears as he begged the judge for leniency (Todd was sentenced to two and a half years in prison, in part because he tested positive for cocaine three times while on bail).
Cunningham’s press secretary responded to accusations of double standards with: “The sentence Todd got had nothing to do with who Duke is. Duke has always been tough on drugs and remains tough on drugs.”
In the Washingtonian feature “Best & Worst of Congress” of 2004, Mr. Cunningham was rated (with four other House members) as “No Rocket Scientist” by a bipartisan survey of Congressional staff.
Cunningham defends deal with defense firm’s owner
By Marcus Stern
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
June 12, 2005
….In an interview Wednesday, Cunningham conceded that the circumstances surrounding the transaction could raise “fair” questions, but he insisted that the real estate deal was legitimate and independent of his efforts to help Wade win contracts.
“My whole life I’ve lived aboveboard,” Cunningham said. “I’ve never even smoked a marijuana cigarette. I don’t cheat. If a contractor buys me lunch and we meet a second time, I buy the lunch. My whole life has been aboveboard and so this doesn’t worry me.”
Later, he added, “The last thing I would do is get involved in something that, you know, is wrong. And I feel very confident that I haven’t done anything wrong.”