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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Duke’s heroism

by Philip Martin | May 3, 2022 at 4:49 a.m.


"It helps, I guess, to have something in your file other than the fact that you sold classified advertising."

-- Duke Tully

An accomplished academic and writer of my acquaintance took to social media recently to express dismay at discovering someone he'd known for more than 50 years wasn't who he was pretending to be. He hadn't won the prizes he claimed he had, hadn't attended the schools, hadn't earned the credentials. He was a "near-complete fraud."

My friend declined to publicly out him; the fraudster is retired and in no position to do anyone harm. But it stirred up plenty of speculation and similar stories of people who have told extravagant lies about and to themselves. Some of the commentators were disgusted; one blithely announced that she couldn't understand lying under any circumstances. But I think it made most of them sad.

I know a few stories about people like Duke Tully.

He was a good enough writer, a gifted executive and a talented and powerful newspaper publisher; as the publisher of the Arizona Republic he was fond of saying he told Arizona what to think. Regarded by some as a bully, he raised salaries and upgraded equipment. A lot of people in the newsroom liked him.

He was one of the chief architects of John McCain's political career. But one thing he wasn't was a retired U.S. Air Force fighter pilot, a decorated veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars. He pretended to be that, dressed up in medal-bedazzled uniforms and went to banquets.

After his newspaper went after a county prosecutor, the prosecutor began investigating Tully. Even in the pre-Internet age it wasn't that hard to determine that Tully was selling newspaper ads in West Virginia when he was supposedly flying missions over Korea.

On the day after Christmas in 1985, the prosecutor held a press conference in which he presented government documents that showed Tully had never served in the military. Two hours later, Tully resigned and apologized.

He was disgraced and ridiculed; the local strip bar Cowgirls promoted "The Duke Tully Memorial Heroes Party," giving prizes for "Best Military Costume" and "Best War Story." Bumper stickers began appearing reading "I flew with Duke."

McCain, the actual combat flier, said he stood by his friend, though he couldn't condone his actions. "Politics doesn't take precedence over friendship," McCain said. But after Tully resigned as Arizona Republic publisher, McCain barely if ever spoke to the godfather of his daughter Meghan again.

There were other incidents; it emerged that Tully had at one point told a journalist he was employed by Israeli intelligence, and that while on a trip to Israel he'd flown an Israeli fighter. (Secret agents, you know, really like to talk about their work.)

"The whole thing smacks of tragedy," McCain said.

If you look into the Duke Tully story, you will discover a lonely, bookish boy whose older brother Grant was a Marine lieutenant, killed in a mid-air collision during a training exercise at Guadalcanal in 1942. Whose cousin was killed during a bombing mission in the Marshall Islands soon afterward. And whose father, heartbroken at the loss of his oldest son, turned inward, withdrawing from his family before shooting himself in the head in 1955.

Clarence Darrow Tully--"Duke" was an affectation borrowed from a cowboy star--entered Purdue University in 1949. He didn't join the Air Force like he claimed. He never graduated from Purdue either, though he claimed both a degree and (another lie) a football letter. Though he did some reporting in his early days and occasionally wrote editorials for the Republic, he was never a Washington correspondent.

In the wake of the scandal, Tully said he'd tried to join the Air Force but was turned away because of weak eyesight and flat feet. Maybe. But he joined the Civil Air Patrol and became an excellent pilot, good enough to impress McCain.

Tully began telling people that he'd served in the Air Force to spruce up his resume. In 1955, the Duluth (Minn.) News-Tribune reported that Tully, then its classified advertising manager, "... holds a commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force."

In 1967, Tully's bio said he was "a major in the Air Force reserve." In 1975, the San Francisco Chronicle reported he'd "served as a fighter pilot in Korea and Vietnam."

In 1985, the Republic's staff bio had Tully being shot down in Korea in 1952, flying more than 100 combat missions in Vietnam, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross and a Vietnam Gallantry Cross among other medals, and retiring from active duty as a lieutenant colonel.

He showed up at the Arizona Air Force Association Ball and a banquet held by the American Fighter Aces Association wearing a dress uniform bearing the rank of a lieutenant colonel, pilot wings and medals he'd bought at thrift stores. He made a very convincing old warrior.

"I remember him telling me, emotionally, about how he was shot down in his P-51 in Korea," McCain told the Los Angeles Times in 1986. "He told me his back was broken, people dragging him out of the wreckage, him waking up in a body cast. It was quite a stirring story."

The summer before he was outed, Tully began to tell friends and family that he'd embellished his history a bit. He was over 50, with undeniable accomplishments to his name. A posh house, a Corvette, and all the anxiety he could eat.

There were no legal repercussions; the way the U.S. attorney saw it, Tully didn't impersonate a veteran to defraud anyone, so there was no crime. The ACLU and others argued that the county prosecutor had overstepped by using the resources of his office to go after a private citizen who was not suspected of any crime. (He declined to run for a third term and got the hell out of Phoenix. He started prosecuting drug cases in Bisbee. It was simpler, cleaner.)

I admire him for not allowing the revelations to ruin him. Duke's only real heroism came in the third act.

He checked in to a Scottsdale hospital "for a rest," and within a few months had a new job as publisher of the Williston Herald in North Dakota. He put in two years there, then moved on. He had 13 newspapers in New England, and later worked as a consultant to the San Francisco Chronicle and other newspapers. He died in 2010.

By then, 1985 might have seemed like an old movie vaguely remembered.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at pmartin@adgnewsroom.com.


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