Good-Time Charlie Wilson

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From Texas comes word that Charlie Wilson’s heart–his second–finally gave out. Which wasn’t all that surprising, when you considered how much he had lived. If you measured Charlie Wilson’s life in years, it came to only 76. But if you looked at the number of miles the former Texas Congressman put on his odometer, well, that added up to more than most men could manage in three lifetimes.

Charlie Wilson was the kind of man who would declare on 60 Minutes: “I just love stickin’ it to the Russians.” The kind of man who would make a fact-finding trip through Pakistan, taking his then-girlfriend, a former Miss World USA, in tow. And then, when the Defense Intelligence Agency refused to ferry her, he was the kind who would use his position on the House Appropriations Committee to slash the funding for two DIA planes, and have them transferred to the national guard instead. His House colleagues used to say Charlie Wilson was the only person they had ever met who could strut while sitting down. And, yet, he also managed to get elected 12 times from Lufkin, Texas–a town so socially conservative that it didn’t vote to allow alcohol sales until 2006, which was 73 years after the rest of the country ended Prohibition.

Pretty much everyone else who ever met him developed a fondness for Charlie Wilson. They just couldn’t help it. The columnist Molly Ivins once pondered how it was that a liberal feminist such as herself could love such an unreconstructed chauvinist so very, very much. “I’ve been worrying about my fitness to write for Ms. Magazine on account of I like Charlie Wilson,” she wrote in that magazine in 1988. “Good Lord, that is embarrassing. Congressman Wilson is the Hunter Thompson of the House of Representatives; a gonzo politician. He’s a sexist and has made war a spectator sport. By way of redeeming social value, he’s funny, a good congressman for his district, and hasn’t an ounce of hypocrisy. … I called Wilson to ask him why we like him, thinking he might know. He said: `Feminists like me because I am an unapologetic sexist, chauvinist redneck … who … votes with ’em every time. I have proven that I can vote with ’em without kissing their ass. I try not to let ’em know I vote with ’em; it’s more fun to have ’em mad at me.’ ”

When they made a movie a few years back about how Charlie had secretly funded the ouster of the Soviets from Afghanistan, Tom Hanks played him. And Hanks did it just the way Charlie had wanted, right down to the opening scene. In 1990, which was sixteen years before the movie hit the screen, Charlie had told Washington Post reporter Tom Kenworthy that he wanted it to start with him in a hot tub with two Las Vegas showgirls, even as a fruitless Justice Department investigation of him was under way. “It would be a lot better movie if I was retired,” Charlie had told Kenworthy. “Or if I moved into the witness protection program. Then it’d be one hell of a movie.”

It turned out to be a hell of a movie anyway, because it was about a hell of a life. Fact is, no one could have made up a character like Charlie Wilson.

UPDATE: Carl Hulse notes the congruity in the passing of Charlie Wilson and John Murtha in the same week.:

The pair had a connection that goes far deeper than their expertise at playing the inside game in Congress to full advantage for themselves and their pet interests.

As recounted in the book, “Charlie Wilson’s War,” then Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill asked the colorful Mr. Wilson to take a spot on the House ethics committee to help shut down an inquiry into Mr. Murtha, who had gotten caught up in the Abscam bribery investigation. Mr. Murtha wasn’t prosecuted for his role, but the internal watchdog committee was looking into whether he broke House rules by not reporting a bribery attempt.

In the book written with Mr. Wilson’s cooperation by investigative journalist George Crile, Mr. Wilson agreed to take the seat on the ethics panel in return for appointment to the board of the Kennedy Center, which would provide him with plenty of access to exclusive entertainment events. The inquiry was quickly derailed, leading the chief investigator to resign.

“It was the best deal I ever made,” Mr. Wilson told Mr. Crile. “I only had to be on Ethics for a year, and I get to stay on the Kennedy Center for life.”

Mr. Wilson and Mr. Murtha went on to cooperate closely in providing secret funding for the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and Mr. Murtha’s role in helping engineer that embarrassing defeat by the mujahedeen was noted in obituaries this week.

UPDATE2: Commenter Jamie Dunham offers this personal recollection:

I grew up in Lufkin and cannot remember a time without Charlie Wilson. I can see him now walking down Main Street. He was a colorful and loved character, as evidenced by the years he served in office. He recently took the time to talk to my son who was writing a college paper on Afghanistan. Everyone in the district knew that Charlie would take your call, find out about your Social Security check and listen to your views. He will be missed.