Copley News Service
Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham’s contention that he made an obscene gesture during a recent public appearance in response to similar behavior from a man in the audience has come under dispute from some of those who were there.
The man accused by Cunningham has denied he made such a gesture and others present — though not all — said he didn’t do it.
While speaking Saturday at a gathering of prostate cancer patients, Cunningham cursed at a man the Escondido Republican said was heckling him.
“He flipped me the bird first,” Cunningham, who had prostate surgery last month, later told a reporter. “The guy interrupted me four times, and when he started bad-mouthing the military, I had enough. I didn’t need that crap.”
Rancho Bernardo resident Chuck Cotton, who like Cunningham is a retired Navy man, insists he never made an obscene gesture at the congressman, and that he interrupted only once to suggest that defense spending should be cut even more than it has been.
“That’s when he gave me the finger and said ‘(expletive) you,’” said Cotton, a radioman during World War II and a retired purchaser for McDonald’s restaurants. “I think it’s unfortunate for a public official to make that kind of expletive, and to gesture to anyone publicly is uncalled for.”
“I did not give him the finger,” he added.
John Fistere, a retired engineer from El Cajon who sat near Cotton, said he never saw Cotton make a gesture at Cunningham. A reporter covering the event also said it did not appear Cotton made an obscene gesture.
The 74-year-old Cotton engaged in “a little bit” of heckling, Fistere said, adding that Cotton’s comment was loud enough for the audience of about 100 people at the San Diego Rehabilitation Institute to hear. But, he said, “I didn’t hear a lot of comment from anyone.”
On the other hand, the physician who organized the event, Israel Barken, said Cotton not only made such a gesture but “shouted” at Cunningham after the congressman shifted his remarks on prostate surgery to his opposition to military spending cuts in Congress.
“I was sitting in the first row and this guy (Cotton) was in the second row, very close,” said Barken, who formed the San Diego Prostate Cancer Support Group at Alvarado Hospital. “He started shouting, ‘Cut! Cut! Cut! Cut!’”
“It was an incident that shouldn’t have happened, and the whole meeting was about something else.”
Cunningham’s chief of staff, Patrick McSwain, said the congressman has already apologized and admitted he acted “inappropriately.”
“He has repeatedly interrupted and heckled, and very personally thought that the guy had made this gesture to him,” McSwain said.
“He’s done talking on the issue. He has recognized that he’s made some inappropriate comments, and that’s the end of the story.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Barney Frank — the gay Massachusetts Democrat about whom Cunningham made a crude comment during his speech — said yesterday that Cunningham has an odd fascination with homosexuality.
In describing his prostate cancer experience, Cunningham said that a rectal procedure he had undergone was “just not natural, unless maybe you’re Barney Frank.”
Cunningham later apologized for that reference, too.
“He tends to frequently blurt out stuff on gay issues,” said Frank in a telephone interview in Washington. “He seems to be more interested in discussing homosexuality than most homosexuals.”
But Frank dismissed Cunningham’s insult as coming from a man not well respected in Congress.
“He’s not a guy who’s taken all that seriously,” Frank said. “He does not have a high reputation for the thoughtful, analytical content of his remarks.”
It is not the first time Cunningham — who underwent surgery to remove his cancerous prostate gland last month — has come under fire for controversial remarks about homosexuals or the military.
In 1995, he referred to gays as “homos” on the House floor, and later apologized. He also has suggested that gays in the military would “degrade the national security.”
Referring to President Clinton’s anti-war activities during the Vietnam War, Cunningham once said Clinton “would be tried as a traitor and even shot” if he lived in another nation.
He challenged Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., to a fist fight during a House debate on congressional spending. And in March, when a top Army official told a House subcommittee about efforts to combat sexual harassment and discrimination in the military, Cunningham called the efforts “BS” and asserted that “our kids don’t like . . . political correctness.”
Staff writers Dwight Daniels and Gerry Braun contributed to this report.
There’s something terribly wrong in our civic discourse when two grown men at a public meeting get into a shouting match punctuated by crude expletives and at least one obscene finger gesture. It’s even worse when one of the two is a member of Congress.
Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Escondido, responded to a heckler at a San Diego forum on prostate cancer by gesturing toward him with his finger and declaring, “(expletive) you.” During his remarks at the weekend event, the congressman also described a rectal procedure he had received as “just not natural, unless maybe you’re Barney Frank,” a reference to the openly gay lawmaker from Massachusetts.
Cunningham later apologized, saying his actions were inappropriate for a member of Congress. He certainly got that right.
But this was not the first time Cunningham let his temper get the better of him.
In 1995, Capitol Hill police had to break up a scuffle between the San Diego County lawmaker and Rep. James Moran, D-Va. A year earlier, Cunningham challenged Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., to a physical confrontation on the House floor. On another occasion, he used the degrading term “homos” to describe gays in the armed forces.
As a four-term veteran of the House, Cunningham has exerted constructive leadership on important military and education issues. But his reputation for vulgar conduct — a reputation he seems intent on reinforcing at regular intervals, despite his own repeated apologies — is an embarrassment to San Diego.
A member of Congress ought to be a role model for the community. Yet what kind of example does it set, for young people and adults alike, when their elected representative uses obscene language and gestures to express himself at a public forum?
Sadly, Cunningham’s actions coarsen the public debate at a time when our civic culture is badly in need of uplifting. It’s long past time for the congressman to take seriously his responsibility to conduct himself in a manner befitting the high office that the San Diego voters have entrusted to him.
Caption: Rep. Cunningham
Re: “Angry words mar Cunningham talk” (B-1, Sept. 6):
I would like to set the record straight. Your story about the “verbal confrontation” between Rep. Randy Cunningham and myself at the prostate meeting Saturday was completely accurate.
But the comment that Cunningham made later that I had repeatedly heckled him during the morning speech and that “I flipped the bird to him first” was totally inaccurate.
I did not heckle him, nor did I give him “the bird.” When Cunningham brought up the defense budget and stated that it was the lowest in 25 years, I told him that it was “not low enough.” I did not bash the military. I never mentioned that word. That’s when Cunningham gave me “the bird” and used an expletive. The people sitting around me can vouch for my truth. It’s obvious that the congressman realized he was wrong in what he did, and tied to justify his actions.
I am a proud veteran of the Navy who served in World War II. I am 100 percent for a strong defense budget to protect our country, but I believe there should be a balance between that and the many social issues that need to be addressed as well.
Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham is getting much notoriety by criticizing what he views as the moral shortcomings of his fellow congressman, Massachusetts’ Barney Frank, a self-proclaimed homosexual.
Another congressman, Indiana’s Dan Burton, also has been creating fame for himself by criticizing President Clinton’s moral shortcomings. However, when confronted, Burton, like Clinton, has confessed to be an adulterer of long standing.
I have supported and campaigned for Cunningham through two of his elections. I hope that we aren’t going to find out about him, as we just have with Burton, that those who make the most noise know best.
As a father of a son who was born gay, I take offense at Cunningham’s statement that a procedure done for his prostate cancer is something only Barney Frank would like. Also, I believe that Cunningham would feel that any amount of money spent on AIDS research is too much.
Hooray for Duke Cunningham. I’m glad he stood his ground. I regret Chuck Cotton didn’t hear exactly what he wanted to, but that’s the way it is. Cunningham is known to tell the truth, even if you don’t like it.
As a decorated Vietnam veteran, the congressman has a right and, more important, a duty to talk about the issues of today. The way the Clinton administration has been dismantling our military is not only shameful, it’s dangerous. I’m happy a man like the congressman speaks out and is not intimidated by a heckler such as Cotton.
As far as the crack on Rep. Barney Frank: Well, if you can’t stand the heat, stay in the closet.
Cunningham’s remarks about Frank are disgusting and coarse. The congressman is long past retirement time.
Copyright © 1998
Union-Tribune Publishing Co.