Charlie Wilson’s War
I Knew Charlie Wilson,
Charlie Wilson Was a Friend of Mine...
BY PAT WILLIAMS
If you haven't seen the recent hit movie Charlie Wilson's War, you likely know little to nothing about the colorful 12 term former congressman from east Texas. And even if you had heard of him, many people want to know more about both Charlie's antics as well as his extraordinary and controversial efforts to fund Afghanistan in its 1980s war to defend itself against the Soviet Union.
Charlie Wilson, more than any other member of the U. S. Congress, used his membership on the Appropriation and Intelligence Committees to fund, train, and equip the Afghan resistance fighters during that destructive and bloody war. During much of the 1980s Wilson convinced his fellow members of the Defense Appro-priations and Intelligence Committees to funnel hundreds of millions of dollars, equipment, and covert CIA training to the Mujahadeen freedom fighters in Afghan-istan. Charlie Wilson was more than satisfied to “kill commies” by shipping FIM 92 Stinger missiles and who knows what other weapons to the rebels. Following years of blood, horror, bravery and America's money, “Charlie's Muj,” as the rebels have been called, fought the old Soviet Union to a standstill. The TV series 60 Minutes soon aired a laudatory segment called “Charlie Did It” and that has now been followed with the Academy Award nominated film.
And, lest we forget, many Afghans, Iraqis, and Saudis are now firing “Charlie Wilson's weapons” at America and our fighting men and women.
Charlie's personality and his political career represented dichotomies seldom seen even among the characters, past and present who have walked the halls of the U. S. Congress. Charlie and I served together for twelve years and we left the Congress together in 1997. I came to know him well.
There were actually two Congressmen Charles Wilsons when I first arrived in D.C., and one of them was known as “Good Time Charlie.” I soon discovered that “Good Time” was the tall, well dressed, wise cracking, congressman with a smile big as Texas and a beautiful woman on each arm. He was a straight backed, lean fellow with a genuine swagger—which in comparison makes George W. Bush's Texas swagger look like a bad limp.
Charlie and I probably came to know each other because of the similarities of our congressional districts. His district in east Texas, like mine in western Montana, was populated with small towns. The boundary lines of our districts were shared by adjoining states. For Texas it is Arkansas and for us it is Idaho. Charlie's district, the 1st District of Texas and mine, the 1st District of Montana, had been the homes of an important timber trade and both are places of diverse scenery. The two districts also shared a kind of three legged politics: a healthy blend of conservative, liberal and populist.
I found the most intriguing aspect of Charlie Wilson to be the stark dichotomies of his person-ality. He was a womanizer extraordinaire but he combined that with a gentlemanly, southern politeness toward all women. He was a defense spending hawk, devoted to “chasing and killing commies.” As a member of the Defense Appropriation Committee, Charlie literally forced money down the Pentagon's throat—whether they had requested it or not. No member of Congress was more adept or had fewer qualms about the naked, transparent use of the American flag and patriotism in order to win elections.
He was advancing that generally far right policy of unrestrained Pentagon spending and shameless flag-waving while also voting for virtually every liberal domestic policy. Charlie fought hard to protect and expand both Medicare and Social Security. He supported the Equal Rights Amendment. Throughout his political career, which included twelve years in the Texas Legislature, he worked to include more, not fewer, poor people within the Welfare program's safety net. Charlie voted with environmentalists time and again. As a member of the Texas legislature, Charlie supported John F. Kennedy rather than his own state's more conservative U.S. Senator Lyndon Johnson.
Following Charlie's retirement in 1997 he again side-stepped conventional wisdom. Rather than stay in Washington, D.C. he went home to Lufkin, Texas. At 74 Charlie hasn't been well and underwent a heart transplant several months ago: recovering from that surgery is Charlie Wilson's latest war.
Former Montana Democratic Congressman Pat Williams is Senior Fellow at The University of Montana's Center for the Rocky Mountain West.