WASHINGTON WAS A NERVOUS CITY IN LATE OCTOBER. My taxi driver had anthrax on his mind. “I haven’t opened my mailbox in ten days,” he confided as he swung onto Pennsylvania Avenue. The dome of the Capitol sprang up before us, and I was startled to realize that the first thought to enter my mind was, “It’s still there.”
I had come to Washington to interview the lobbyist for Pakistan, which is arguably the most important country in the world for the United States at this moment—not only because it is adjacent to Afghanistan, but also because it possesses nuclear weapons that, with a shift of internal political winds, could be diverted into some very bad hands. The person who occupies this position happens to be a familiar figure in Texas politics: Charlie Wilson, the former congressman from Lufkin, whose career spanned three decades before he retired from office in 1996. It is a toss-up whether Wilson is better known for the escapades that earned him the nickname Good-time Charlie or for his leadership in getting Congress to provide arms to the Afghan resistance against the Soviet Union during the eighties; presumably, it is the latter role that brought him and Pakistan together. At a time when the world is going mad, when unthinkable events are commonplace, when rumor is more prevalent than fact, everyone seems to be looking for Somebody Who Knows Something, and for me that somebody was Charlie Wilson.
But in a larger sense, I had come to Washington because of Francis Loewenheim. I encountered him in my senior year at Rice University, in a course he taught on modern European history. He was a small, bespectacled, eccentric man who earnestly believed that history was the most important thing in the world and did little else during his lifetime other than seek out its lessons. His favorite aphorism was “Every man his own historian,” which I took to be a mandate to examine the world around us and make judgments based on evidence. I still remember his final exam: “Hegel said that one can learn nothing from history except that one can learn nothing from history. But isn’t it more accurate to say that we often learn the wrong thing from history? Discuss the use and misuse of history from 1914 to the present.” I didn’t do so well on the final, but at least I’m still working on it—which is why I went to see Wilson.
He was settling into a new office on the day I saw him, and movers hauled in furniture as we talked. At 68 he looked splendid in American-flag suspenders—red and