Congressman Charlie Wilson
Charlie served his district and his state well, he never tried to hide his shortcomings, and he was a good friend. A lot of people would settle for that as an epitaph.
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Charlie Wilson, who represented the second district of Texas in Congress from 1973 to his resignation in 1996, was a unique politician—a state legislator, a state senator, and one of the most effective congressmen Texas has ever sent to Washington. He was the last of his era to practice one-on-one personal politics on a grand scale, LBJ-style. His career was a testament to the preservative powers of a lifetime of whiskey, women, and God knows what else. At a small ceremony in Lufkin at which he announced his retirement, he told his constituents, “You are the most tolerant and forgiving constituency in the world.”
Charlie made no effort to hide his shortcomings; if anything, he flaunted them. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he took a perverse pride in telling how he graduated eighth from the bottom of his class and accumulated the second highest number of demerits in the history of the Academy. He flouted all the rules of proper behavior: He drank, he caroused, he was investigated for using cocaine (by none other than Rudy Giuliani), and in one spectacular violation of the rules, he once took a girlfriend, a former Miss World, to spend the night on an aircraft carrier. George Crile, the CBS producer who wrote the book Charlie Wilson’s War that became the basis for the film of the same name, wrote that Wilson’s health was such a mess by 1985 that his doctor gave him eighteen months to live. His close friend, Charles Schnabel, who had been secretary of the Texas Senate when Wilson served, went to Washington to work for Wilson. His primary assignment was to get Charlie to stop drinking. Schnabel saved his life. Wilson’s heart held out until 2007, when he got a transplant that prolonged his days.
Many readers know of him only through the film in which Tom Hanks played Charlie. The celluloid Charlie was very representative of the real Charlie. In the opening scene, which takes place in a warehouse-like venue at the CIA, Hanks has Wilson’s posture down perfectly—ramrod straight like a midshipman at attention, with his thumbs hooked under his suspenders, so that he appears to be leaning slightly backwards. Growing up in East Texas, Charlie acquired a keen ability to judge people, and he used that facility to win friends in Austin and in Washington.
Charlie started out selling lumber for timber baron Arthur Temple. He ran for the Texas House in 1960 and won. As a freshman, he was the sponsor of the original 2% sales tax. In the House, Wilson was known as “Timber Charlie” for his protection of the Temples’ interests. The better nickname, which I believe originated with the late author Molly Ivins, though it could have come from Charlie himself, was “Good Time.” It was Ivins who penned the best line uttered by Wilson, about why he hired only beautiful women to work in his office: “You can teach ‘em to type, but you can’t teach ‘em to grow tits.”
Charlie did not bother with the technical side of legislating. Routine committee meetings bored him, and he seldom attended—so seldom, in fact, that he is thought to have set a House record by absenting himself from all 28 meetings of the Veterans Committee one year. He spent his time getting to know members, making friends, and doing and collecting favors. In his second term, he won a seat on Appropriations at the expense of a fellow Texan, Richard White of El Paso, although his home state delegation favored White. As he gained in seniority and influence, he eventually succeeded in getting a seat on the Democratic Steering and Policy committee, the committee that hands out seats on other committees: In other words, it was a fount of favors. (In the film, Charlie’s character explains his success to CIA operative Gust Avrakotos: “I represent the only congressional district that doesn’t want anything. They want low taxes. They want their guns. I get to vote yes a lot [for other members’ pet projects].”) Charlie ultimately leveraged his favors into a seat on the Defense subcommittee of Appropriations, from which he was able to direct funding to the Afghanistan resistance, setting in motion the events that were the subject of the film: The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. There is a scene in the film when Hanks holds the grip stock of a stinger missile housing high over his head in ecstatic triumph. That grip stock occupied a prime space over the door of his House office in the Longworth Building, and on the day of his retirement ceremony, I saw it again, above the front door of his home.
Charlie was particularly active in helping the oil and gas industry back home—no easy feat in a Democratic caucus that had little love for oil companies. He had the inspired idea to describe independent oilmen as “little oil.” Of course, many independents are very big indeed, but Wilson’s continued reference to them as “little” allowed him to persuade Congress to treat independents differently from major oil companies. They got to keep their tax breaks; the majors did not. His best skill, though, was that he knew how to get people to like him. He didn’t try to pretend that he wasn’t a flawed being, in Washington or back home. That’s why he kept getting reelected.
In the early nineties it looked as if his career might be over. Republicans were gaining in strength in east Texas, and Wilson faced a strong challenge from Donna Peterson, who had graduated from West Point. They faced each other in 1990 and again in 1992, and Wilson won by identical margins of 56-44. The Almanac of American Politics, writing about the ‘92 race, quoted an unnamed observer as saying about Wilson, “He retails better than Wal-Mart.”
I relished the chances I had to talk with him on trips to Washington. He had an ability, which so few politicians have, to see through the fog and know the strengths and the weaknesses and the ambitions of his colleagues—and he knew how to put that knowledge to use. I know that Charlie had higher ambitions. He wanted to run against John Tower for the U.S. Senate in 1978, but even that early in his congressional career, his personal reputation was well enough known in Washington (and for that matter, remembered back in Austin from his Senate days) that he couldn’t have won a major race. It is a shame. He had all the gifts except self-discipline. And he probably wouldn’t have traded his life for discipline anyway.
He was a great source for me. His political instincts were unerring. When I went to Washington in 1981 to write about the Democratic fight against Ronald Reagan’s budget cuts, Charlie knew that the Democrats were going to lose, long before the Democratic leadership knew it. When I went back some years later to write about Jim Wright’s battle to survive as House speaker, Charlie knew that Wright was doomed, long before Wright knew it. “He made them hate him,” he said of Wright’s relationship with the Republicans.
The end of Charlie’s career coincided with Bill Clinton’s race for reelection. Character issues were the public’s foremost concern, for obvious reasons. Perhaps that was why he decided it was time to leave. (He became a lobbyist for Pakistan, the country that facilitated the delivery of munitions into Afghanistan.) But I always felt that Charlie passed the character test. You can judge a politician by his private life, or by his public life. For a politician, the character test is not just whether he lives a faultless life. It is whether he or she serves the public. Charlie passed that test with flying colors. He served his district and his state well, and he never tried to hide his shortcomings, and he was a good friend. A lot of people would settle for that as an epitaph.