Charlie Wilson will be remembered for being outrageous, but he also stood up to an empire.
I had a friend who used to work for Congressman Charlie Wilson — his office staff, who were often kidded about looking as though they had stepped out of a swimsuit issue, were sometimes called "Charlie's Angels" — who once described how her boss often appalled her, but ultimately won her affection and respect.
He had a cat named Ernest in his Washington co-op apartment, a good-time place where booze was on tap from breakfast, and parties ran for days. The co-op board passed a rule that all cats must be declawed.
"Then I got to move," he told them. "I don't know how long this Congress stuff is going to last. But someday, Ernest and I are going back to Lufkin, and Ernest is going to need his claws."
Wilson sure kept his. He spent 12 terms in Congress. Almost because he was so famed for his outrageous wit, wiliness, stunning women and staggering antics, it took years to understand that Wilson had stood up to an empire — and won.
He visited Afghan refugee camps in the late 1980s and was touched and outraged at seeing so many people who suffered under Soviet occupation — especially children who had been maimed by mines disguised as toys.
"I decided to grab the sons o' bitches by the throat," he said. Through means overt, covert and inscrutable, Wilson wheeled and dealed as much as $5 billion in arms and aid to Afghan rebels.
There was no Afghan-American vote in Lufkin, Texas — no obvious political gain. Why would a congressman from east Texas take Afghanistan into his heart?
"It would have been like not supplying the Soviets against Hitler in World War II," Wilson said in 2007.
His support became personal, not just political.
When Soviet forces killed mules to prevent Afghans from using them to bring in supplies, Wilson realized that they had quite a few mules in Tennessee, and flew some in.
In recent years, Wilson disputed those who said arming Afghan rebels just put weapons in the hands of people, most notably the Taliban, who would use them against U.S. forces after 2001. Wilson believed that America's mistake wasn't getting involved in Afghanistan, but leaving it without recourse or resources in the 1990s.
In his own jolly and outrageous way, Wilson's career reminds us of what electoral politics is supposed to be about: not just standing by your ideas, but learning and changing, too. Wilson came to Congress and let himself be changed by seeing Afghan children with no hands, and listening to the testimony of refugees. If people in his district sometimes disagreed with what he did, they had the chance to toss him out every two years, but they never did. He stood for some good things — and had a great time.