The Rehabilitation of Charlie Wilson

From booze-guzzling, skirt-chasing, check-kiting Congressman to American hero in—you guessed it—twelve steps.

A lot of terms were used to describe seventy-one-year-old former U.S. congressman Charlie Wilson when he represented deep East Texas on Capitol Hill from 1973 to 1996, and “hero” was not typically among them. “Hopeless alcoholic” was. So too was “pussy hound.” And the occasional, less colorful term, like “self-serving” or “vindictive.” He was reputed to be a hard-drinking, coke-snorting, skirt-chasing, lightweight lawmaker, a water carrier for the timber industry, and worst of all, a pork barrel liberal. As he’ll cheerfully point out, not all those descriptions were intended as compliments. Though folks back home always loved him, up in D.C. there were plenty of people who considered him a joke, more notable for the good-looking women he squired around the world on the federal dime than any law he ever authored or sponsored.

When he retired, eight years ago, mention of Good Time Charlie Wilson in the history books looked to be relegated to a humorous (hopefully) footnote, his most significant achievement being that those same “personal qualities,” to use the term loosely, that inspired investigations by the House Ethics Committee at least three known times—for cocaine use in 1983, writing hot checks to the House bank in 1992, and making illegal personal loans from his campaign account in 1995—were practically celebrated behind the Pine Curtain, where, beginning in 1960, he was elected to public office eighteen times—three to the Texas House, three to the Texas Senate, and twelve to the Congress. That, plus the fact that he gave utterance to the most stupefying, yet somehow non-suicidal, political quote this side of former Louisiana governor Edwin “Fast Eddie” Edwards’s famous “live boy, dead girl” crack. In a 1988 Ms. Magazine piece by Molly Ivins, he provided the following justification for the hiring practices that had earned his secretarial staff the nickname Charlie’s Angels: “You can teach ’em to type, but you can’t teach ’em how to grow tits.”

And that easily could have been the final word on his legacy. But last May, 60 Minutes producer George Crile published a book called Charlie Wilson’s War. It told a story not widely known beyond retired CIA spooks and cold war scholars, of how a lone congressman in the eighties had channeled more

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