Associate editor John Spong on his twelve-step program for former congressman and wild man Charlie Wilson.
texasmonthly.com: How did you come up with the idea for a story about Charlie Wilson? Why were you initially interested in writing about this former congressman?
John Spong: There’s a point at the beginning of the story when I talk about an old Ms. Magazine article Molly Ivins wrote in 1988. I actually read it when it came out. I was an undergrad at the University of Texas and working at the state capitol at the time, and some state representative asked me to photocopy it for her. I read it while I was waiting in line to use the copier, and needless to say, I was floored. All that drunken tomcat business made him a hero to a beer-drinking college idiot like me. But I also remember thinking it was cool that this guy, who was clearly a womanizer and a chauvinist, was adored by the feminist movement. He had sponsored the Equal Rights Amendment in Texas and had always voted with the reproductive rights champions. Jump forward fifteen years or so to last summer. I’m working at Texas Monthly, doing a story for our special politics issue on a bar where all the state legislators hang out. I knew Charlie had left Austin for Washington, D.C., a couple of years before the bar had opened for business, but the story seemed like a good excuse to call and interview my old hero anyway. He immediately started to tell me that a book about him—Charlie Wilson’s War, by George Crile—had debuted on the best-seller list and that there were movie offers coming in. At that point I realized there was a chance to do a story on him myself. I was thrilled.
texasmonthly.com: Why did you decide to use the twelve-step format rather than a traditional storytelling technique?
JS: There were a couple of problems with doing a story on Charlie. One was that the book was already out. What could be added to that? The other big problem was that plenty of magazine articles had already been written. There were a couple by Molly Ivins and also one by Larry L. King, who is another of my heroes. “Daunting” is a good word to describe the prospect of following those folks. So I did a lot of thinking out loud with Texas Monthly’s articles editor, Chris Keyes, about ways to make our story seem new. Evan Smith, Texas Monthly’s editor, said the story needed to be about how Charlie had gone from lecher to hero. He said it was to be about the Rehabilitation of Charlie Wilson. At some point it occurred to me that there was a good joke in the fact that Charlie’s reputation for being a scoundrel was so great that the only way he’d really been able to clear his name was by doing something on the scale he did—ending the cold war. That sounds ridiculous, right? So Chris and I decided that the thing to do was present this as if anybody could do it, and we modeled the story loosely after the twelve-step programs by which people rehabilitate themselves.
texasmonthly.com: How much did you know about Charlie Wilson before you started working on the article?
JS: Every time I have seen Charlie’s name appear in print, I have dropped everything to read the story. He is so good at being Charlie Wilson. That didn’t exactly make me an expert, but it helped me know where to start.
texasmonthly.com: As you mention in your article, Charlie has been described as a hopeless alcoholic, a skirt-chasing lawmaker, and a pork barrel liberal. How would you characterize him in five or so words?
JS: He’s all Charlie, all the time.
texasmonthly.com: Tom Hanks’s production company bought the rights to Charlie Wilson’s War. If Charlie’s life were made into a movie, who would you place in the leading role? Who would play his wife, Barbara?
JS: That’s tough. In truth, it’s hard to picture somebody as clean-cut as Tom Hanks pulling it off. It makes about as much sense as getting Peter Scolari to play Barbara. It’s the kind of thing Jack Nicholson could do if he were younger and better-looking.
texasmonthly.com: What was your reaction when you saw Barbara in her commando outfit?
JS: That was a shock. I’d met her a few times and knew her as an elegant, nicely put-together lady—the only person I’ve ever met who actually carries herself like a dancer. So when I was interviewing Charlie and overheard him tell her on the phone that he was bringing me to the house and to please put on her fatigues, I figured he was joking. Nope.
texasmonthly.com: Did you ever hear tales about Charlie that seemed too far-fetched to be true?
JS: There is not a believable story in all the history of Charlie, but amazingly, they are all true. The incident with LBJ’s car—Charlie hides the president’s Secret Service Buick in an alley—is hard to believe, but it did happen. A story that is not in the article but is prominent in the book has Charlie taking his personal belly dancer, a comely Dallas housewife who may or may not have been separated from her husband, to the Middle East. She actually danced for the Egyptian minister of defense and apparently did so in a fashion that was more risque than belly dancing tends to be in that part of the world. Sounds ridiculous, right? Turn to the photo section of Charlie’s book to see a picture.
texasmonthly.com: What was the strangest thing that happened to you while working on this story?
JS: There was a moment, during an interview with a man named Milt Bearden, when I realized I was on extremely foreign territory in terms of the kinds of stories I typically write. We were sitting in the Writer’s Room at a place called the Cosmos Club, a swanky private club in D.C. that, judging from the photos hanging on its wall of fame, has been the favorite getaway of every American to win a Nobel or Pulitzer prize in the past one hundred years. Bearden was explaining how important the Soviet-Afghan War had been in ending the cold war. “Remember the timeline,” he said. “February 15, 1989, the last of the Red Army crosses the bridge from Afghanistan back to the Soviet Union. Boom. May 1989, the Hungarians cut the wire on their border with Austria. June, the Poles elect an electrician [Lech Walesa] from Gdansk. All summer long there are demonstrations in East Germany. Then, on November 9, the Berlin Wall comes down. And all that happened because these guys knew the Soviets could never come back with their tanks and guns. Three hundred and twenty-nine days later, Germany was reunited, and on Boxing Day 1991, the hammer and sickle was hauled down. All told, more than 400 million people were liberated. Wow.” That quote would have been impressive enough coming from a history professor. But Bearden is a former CIA agent. He had been the chief of the agency’s Soviet-East European division during all those events. As I talked to him, I realized these weren’t things he’d read about or even merely seen. These were things he’d helped cause. “Wow” is right.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most interesting thing you learned while working on this story?
JS: My favorite part of this story was never even typed up. At lunch with Charlie and Jennie Quick, the foreign affairs expert at his office, I asked Charlie for stories on Larry L. King. As I said, King is another hero of mine, one of the true lions of magazine writing, and I have collected anecdotes about him over the years. Many of them have to do with King getting into fights in bars. So I asked Charlie if he’d ever backed up Larry L. in a barroom brawl. Charlie insisted that he was good enough at identifying when those kinds of events were imminent and that he had managed to duck out before every one. (Maybe Charlie was good at avoiding some kinds of trouble.) For the rest of lunch, Charlie told these truly magnificent stories about King, all of which were, of course, off the record.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most difficult aspect of working on this story?
JS: Aside from spending a lot of time trying to figure out a format that would make this story seem new, there were some logistical concerns as well. D.C. has always been a tough town to get around in if you don’t know the lay of the land. And these days, with all the national security concerns, the whole city seems like one big construction site, with concrete barriers blocking half the roads and plenty of actual construction going on to boot. I only had a couple of days to pack in a bunch of appointments. Luckily, most of the people I visited with were retired and flexible with their schedules when other interviews ran long. I appreciated that. I couldn’t exactly cut off somebody like Milt Bearden in the middle of a story.
texasmonthly.com: You describe one constituent who seemed rather nonchalant about Charlie’s alleged cocaine use. Why did Charlie get away with so much during his time in office?
JS: There’s a special kind of loyalty in East Texas. One of Charlie’s old friends I talked to, a former state senator from El Paso named Joe Christie, said it’s because nobody ever leaves East Texas. “In rural areas in West Texas,” said Christie, “everybody wants out. Somehow East Texas has enough jobs or intellectual interests or natural beauty that the people choose to stay.” But there’s more to it than that. Charlie never made any bones about how much he enjoyed himself. He never tried to hide it, so, as he liked to point out, his constituents knew exactly what they were getting when they cast their votes for him. And don’t forget all the good he did for his people. He may have gotten drunk and wrecked a car or two, but he also wrote letters that got his people’s kids into college.
texasmonthly.com: Charlie played an influential role in the outcome of the cold war. Did he express any opinions about the current conflict in Iraq? Did he propose any innovative resolutions?
JS: Charlie didn’t talk much about Iraq, although he did go on at length about mistakes he felt were made in the aftermath of the Soviet-Afghan War. He was pretty clear that we should have tried harder to maintain a presence in Pakistan and Afghanistan, to help those people rebuild after the war was over. As he and Bearden both pointed out, Afghanistan was not the beneficiary of its own war. And when that country slipped into civil war after the Soviet Union and the United States were gone, America didn’t do much to influence events. We just kind of let it happen. But Charlie was real clear on whom he is supporting this November. I think he must have told me three times during the interview that he and his wife, Barbara, have already given the maximum legal contributions to John Kerry’s campaign. And I thought it was telling that of all the pictures on his office walls of him posing with presidents, there was no photo of him with George W. Bush. There were none of Nixon either.