'Good Time Charlie' Wilson Dies At 76
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Next, were going to remember former Texas congressman Charlie Wilson. He was a towering figure, both in physical stature and in the power he wielded on Capitol Hill. In the 1980s he used that power to heavily arm the rebels in Afghanistan as they battled the Soviet Union. This week the former congressman had trouble breathing, was taken to a hospital and died at age 76. Wilsons life inspired a best-selling book and a movie. And as NPRs Wade Goodwyn reports, the folks back home in Texas remember him for a lot more.
WADE GOODWYN: He was known as Good Time Charlie and the Liberal from Lufkin. Charlie Wilson had leading-man looks, a devastating sense of humor, and a well-earned reputation for partying as hard as he worked. A divorcee, women loved him and Wilson loved them back. Congressman Ralph Hall knew Wilson from the time when they were starting out in the Texas Senate in the 1960s.
Representative RALPH HALL (Republican, Texas): To drink in the evening and dance up till midnight and then get up and work as hard as he did, he had something that others lacked, because he was always bright-eyed the next morning, ready to go. I never did really see how he did it.
GOODWYN: Wilson was a unique Texas politician. His constituents were rural East Texas Bible Belt, but everyone loved their congressman. Everyone called him Charlie, not Congressman Wilson. He did not want to be above them, he was with them. A graduate of the Naval Academy, he represented the best of a certain kind of East Texas - mart, down to earth, dogged. Ralph Hall says that, while Wilson might have been known as Good Time Charlie, nobody on Capitol Hill ever thought of calling him lightweight Charlie.
Rep. HALL: He had a way of knocking your guard completely down if you were debating him on the floor or in a committee, or just in a discussion. He could go before those committees and make them know that what he was talking about was real and that he could deliver the huge appropriations that they made for him.
GOODWYN: After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1980, Wilson began to work to funnel billions of dollars in arm-shipments to Afghan resistance fighters. For Wilson, it was simple: the Russians were our enemy, and if the Islamic fundamentalists had the courage to fight them, then he was going to help them. He was a master manipulator of Congressional procedures and used his talents prodigiously. Tom Hanks played the Congressman in Charlie Wilsons War.
Mr. TOM HANKS (Actor): There was actually one very particular weekend when Charlie discovered that there was something like $300 million left over in the Naval budget for the year. And from Friday to Sunday night, he worked on dolling out $5 million to a guy in Hong Kong, $10 million to a program in Nepal, another $40 million to (unintelligible). And they just went and made sure that it was all spoken for in the actual Naval budget, but in fact, it was all going in order to provide arms and, I guess, mules to the Afghans. And thats it.
GOODWYN: Plane loads of stinger missiles, beginning in 1986, began to turn the tide against the Russians. By 1989, it was over in Afghanistan, at least for the Soviet Union. But it was never easy getting Wilson reelected in the heart of the Bible Belt. TV advertising man, Mark McCannon, who worked for Wilson, recalls how nearly every campaign, they had to cope was some embarrassing revelation about Wilsons after hours activities. The problem was, Wilson wasnt ever-really embarrassed. At the beginning of one contest, Wilson called his strategist into his office.
Mr. MARK MCCANNON (Strategist for Charlie Wilson, Former): We sat down and he said, boys, you know what? I know we had a lot of issues in past campaigns that were difficult to deal with, but I want to reassure you this time its going to be easier. Because Ive settle down, met a good Christian woman; she sings in the church choir, doesnt drink a lick, I love her, and were plan on getting married - just as soon as she graduates from high school.
GOODWYN: Wilson was just having a bit of fun with his poor beleaguered campaign staff, but Charlie Wilsons tryst with a stunningly beautiful Russian model was no joke. The two were seen together everywhere in Washington. When Wilson announced they were getting married, politicians on both sides of the aisle were aghast. The Congressman from East Texas knew more about American military spending and the CIA than practically any man alive. What in the world was Charlie whispering to her under the covers? He was called before a Congressional committee and ordered to explain. Wilson told them to relax, saying, the only secret Im giving her is Victorias Secret. It was an answer they could all believe, nevertheless, Good Time Charlie broke it off with the Soviet model not long after.
Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.
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