Book Review: “The Wrong Stuff”

Published 02 Oct 2017

“In The Wrong Stuff” authors Marcus Stern, Jerry Kammer, Dean Calbreath and George Condon, Jr. detail the air combat which took place over North Vietnam on May 10. 1972.Duke Cunningham was a U. S. Navy First Lieutenant and F-4 pilot stationed off the coast of North Vietnam on the aircraft carrier Constellation. On May 10, 1972 he and his radio operator were part of a thirty-two plane flight group with the mission of flying “cover” for B-52 bombers attacking a rail depot between Hanoi and Haiphong.

At the time Cunningham had been credited with shooting down two enemy “Mig” fighters. According to the authors, “no other dogfight in the entire was has been celebrated as much as the (dogfight) that followed (the B-52 strike)” (28). Cunningham, who had earlier been confronted by his own feelings for his earlier “kills” was about to shoot down three other Mig aircraft, and in doing so become the first and only Navy “ace” pilot, or being credited with five or more shoot-downs. That he lived was a mix of good luck and great skill. After his first kill, he came to the aid of their executive officer, Commander Dwight Timm. “To come to Timm’s rescue would be dangerous and Cunningham hesitated for a second” but nonetheless saved Timm, shooting down his second Mig of the day. Minutes later he was in a dogfight with an enemy aviator of great skill. Cunningham executed a maneuver best described as “jamming on the brakes” allowing the enemy to speed forward of his plane, at which time he was able to get his fifth kill.

Although Cunningham often played “the reluctant hero” yet was very polished and a “natural” in front of the camera. He was known by fellow pilots as anything but humble. “The officers above him and those under his command pretty quickly learned that Cunningham was much better at controlling an F-4 than he was in managing his own ego” (57).

As the “ace” Cunningham became a hero and became the star of Navy public relations. At some point apparently some Navy bureaucrat gave him the idea he would be awarded the Medal of Honor. He was to be awarded the Navy Cross, the highest medal the Navy has. Unbelievably, on the day of the awards ceremony, Cunningham and his radio operator confronted the Top Gun base commander, Ron Mckeown and Cunningham stated “Willie and I have decided we’re not going to accept the Navy Cross” and was “going to hold out for the Medal of Honor” (4). Obviously the commander would have none of it and the pair received their Navy Crosses. McKeown was obviously stunned at the demand and the reason why. “To McKeown, here was evidence of almost incomprehensible greed because the money (that goes with the Medal of Honor award) Cunningham was ‘holding out for’…totaled only $100.00 per month” (6). His version of events, recreating history, was as blatant as his greed.

In 1985 Cunningham was the base commander of the Top Gun Navy fighter plane training facility. In 1985 Paramount Pictures used the base for the Tom Cruise movie “Top Gun”. According to the authors, “never was Cunningham’s penchant for making things all about himself more evident” than during the filming. “Cunningham boasted that his ‘real life experiences as a Navy aviator and fighter pilot instructor were depicted in the popular movie “Top Gun”. It simply wasn’t true” (61). Cunningham had an entire set of examples and scenes from the movie that he led people to believe were real events from his life. This included flight scenes where the American plane was canopy-to-canopy with a Russian Mig as well as claiming the romance of the characters triggered by his rendition, like the movie, of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”. (61) Little if any of it was legitimate; the only real link he had was being on the base, where he also had himself photographed with actor Tom Cruise. He later passed out this photo as some sort of “proof” of his claims. This self-promotion would be a constant theme during his political career, which started upon this retirement from the Navy.

Cunningham’s political career was shaped by Dan McKinnon, a friend he had met during his Navy public relations tours. (62). Soon Cunningham was in the company of other political figures as he was “reborn politically” (63). He became a constant figure on speaking tours and participated in high-publicity events, including a record-making trans-continental flight with an eleven-year-old pilot. (63) For his first congressional campaign in 1990 he did not need to use any of his own money having over three hundred thousand dollars in campaign contributions. (64) Surviving a very difficult and bloody primary battle the authors conclude “he was ready for the big time, ready for his shot at Washington…it was easy for Cunningham to pose above the fray (generated during the primary) as a war hero non-politician pledging to be ‘a congressman you can be proud of” (64).
There were several mistakes and issues that could have done damage to his campaign, including not having voted for years and being caught up in the “Top Gun” lie. Yet “despite the controversy, the despite the Democratic leanings of the district, the first-time candidate eked out a narrow victory…by 1,659 votes” (65).


  • Stern, Marcus; Kammer, Jerry; Calbreath, Dean and Condon, George. The Wrong Stuff. New York: BBS Public Affairs, 2007.
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