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