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 than $3 billion to Afghan rebels fighting the Soviet Red Army and how that aid had ended the cold war. Charlie Wilson’s War debuted in the ninth spot on the New York Times non-fiction best-seller list, and its unlikely hero became the star of C- SPAN specials and book fairs. A Hollywood movie company bought the rights to his life story. Suddenly Charlie Wilson, Party Boy, became Charlie Wilson, Patriot. When former U.S. Speaker Jim Wright, whose own career had ended in a scandal that was perfectly boring compared with the stuff Charlie had pulled, got his first look at Crile’s book, he said to a friend, “There’s not even a post office named for me back in Fort Worth, and Charlie Wilson got a whole damn war?”
This then is the story of how one man built for himself a new reputation. It was no easy thing for Charlie to do, and true to form, he avoided the conventional path. But for anyone who has ever felt the sting of being dismissed as a “drunken playboy,” it’s a relief to know that there is a way to redemption. It’s a twelve-step program for the rehabilitation of a scoundrel.
Step One: Bring Down an Evil Empire
Standing today in his office at Wilson Associates, the D.C. lobbying firm he started three years ago, Charlie plays up both patriot and rascal. Tall, handsome, and resolute, with small American-flag cuff links and red-white-and-blue suspenders laced through epaulets on his shoulders, he points a long arm at the pictures and plaques covering nearly every inch of wall space. There are photos with five past presidents—“Bill Clinton used to say I was the only congressman who didn’t need an appointment to see him, as long as I didn’t come understaffed.” And there are paintings of the naval destroyer he served on in the fifties and of the Battle of Midway—“That shows the first bomb hit of the Akagi, the aircraft carrier that had been the Japanese flagship at Pearl Harbor. We sank four of their carriers that day, and it changed the war.”
But the talk in Charlie’s office always comes around to Afghanistan, maybe because of his other mementos—photos of Afghan warriors, the missile launcher that fired the first Stinger missile to shoot down a Russian helicopter—but more likely because that is what people want to hear. He’s an old pol who still talks in stump speeches, and the one he delivers on the Soviet-Afghan War is well rehearsed: “There were one hundred sixty-seven funerals in my district for local boys who lost their lives in Vietnam, and I have always blamed every one of them on the Soviet Union’s support of North Vietnam.” When Charlie learned in late 1982 that the Afghan mujahideen, “noble warriors armed only with knives and stones,” were putting up a decent fight against the occupying Red Army, he saw an opportunity to give a little grief back.
Crile’s book details how that thought grew into the largest covert operation in history. As the only member of the House appropriations defense subcommittee without a military base or a defense contractor in his district, Charlie was uniquely situated to get the job done. By voting to fund all the other subcommittee members’ projects, he ensured that those members would fall in line when his pet cause came up. The CIA’s secret sponsorship of the mujahideen, whom Charlie calls “the muj” (pronounced “mooj”), became that pet cause. He started small by defense budget standards, securing $15 million in 1983. By the end of the operation, the total sent from the U.S. was more than $3 billion.
The money went primarily for weapons and ammunition, an area in which Charlie had more than a casual interest. He was a 1956 graduate of the Naval Academy