Good-Time Charlie Rides Again
A month after he traded Washington insiderdom for a house on an acre of land in East Texas, former Lone Star State Rep. Charlie Wilson (D) returned to Capitol Hill for a farewell tribute.
Wilson knows a thing or two about parties: Congress’ inimitable “Good-Time Charlie” once rode a white horse down Pennsylvania Avenue to attend a club opening. So when the House Appropriations Committee scheduled an event in his honor, one should have expected the good times to roll.
And they did, as Members of Congress proved beyond a reasonable doubt that they really, really like Charlie Wilson.
On Monday night in the Appropriations hearing room in the Rayburn House Office Building, Wilson beamed as Member after Member rose to praise the colorful former Texas Representative’s efforts to galvanize the U.S. government to aid the anti-Soviet Mujahedin in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Wilson accomplished this by securing millions, if not billions, of dollars as an Appropriations member.
Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), the unofficial emcee of the evening and the current Appropriations chairman, called the Texas Democrat’s work “key to bringing down the Soviet Empire.”
“Every time Charlie had a bourbon he suddenly began to believe in reincarnation,” cracked Appropriations ranking member David Obey (D-Wis.). Gesturing to a blown-up photo of Wilson on horseback in traditional Afghan attire, Obey said that “the reason he put himself on that horse was he didn’t realize he was fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. He thought he was fighting Santa Ana at the Alamo, and he was Sam Houston. Although everybody knows Sam Houston’s a whole lot better looking.”
Laughs all around.
Meanwhile, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who seemed less than convinced that Wilson was really retiring to a life of anonymity, remembered his early days as a sophomore Member on the Appropriations Committee, when he begged Wilson for “a few crumbs for Houston” as well as the “Stinger [missile] or a shell of a Stinger hanging over the door” to Wilson’s office.
Which reminded Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) of visiting Wilson “one time in Egypt when they brought Charlie in on a gurney with a heart infection … [and] he was just barely living.”
“He says, ‘I want you to do me a favor,’’’ Murtha recalled, noting that he was traveling on a private plane, while Wilson was flying commercial. “He said, ‘Take this stuff back.’ I said, ‘What is it, Charlie?’ He said, ‘Don’t ask.’ Now I see what it is,” Murtha noted, referencing the Stingers.
“I won’t verify we ever sold Stingers or gave Stingers to Pakistan to pass on to Afghanistan,” Murtha added coyly. “I hear rumors.”
With Lewis back at the mic, it was time for a round of acknowledgements.
First there was a nod to the wealthy Texas knockout Joanne Herring Davis, a former girlfriend of Wilson’s and one-time talk-show host who’s credited with turning Wilson on to the Afghan cause. Now slightly older, she still looked glamorous, wearing a daisy-patterned bustier and matching jacket, as she blew kisses to the crowd. “Our romance was the war,” she later airily opined.
Then there were the “friends from the agency,” whom Lewis asked to stand up if willing, especially Gust Avrakotos, the CIA’s “man in the shadows” who played “many a role in Charlie Wilson’s war.”
The highest-profile former agency alumnus was former CIA Director James Woolsey, who presided at a hush-hush ceremony at the CIA for Wilson more than a decade ago. When Woolsey got to his feet, he compared Wilson’s actions on behalf of Afghanistan to those of Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa.
“He cashed in a lot of chits … to free a nation,” Woolsey said, placing Wilson in the company of such “heroes of the Cold War” as former Presidents Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the “magnificent Polish pope,” among many others.
About 45 minutes into the tribute, National Director of Intelligence John Negroponte, most recently our man in Baghdad, strode up to the dais. “You are a legend in the U.S. foreign service,” he said simply. Moments later, DeLay quietly slipped out of the room after a quick stop in the audience to greet Susan Baker, wife of former Secretary of State James Baker, and her son.
As a clip from an old “60 Minutes” piece on Wilson in Afghanistan rolled, the mostly graying audience, heavy on Members of Congress, policy wonks, diplomats and spooks, went wild. There on the screen was Wilson talking about “sticking it to the Russians. … They need to get it back and they are getting it back.” The audience whooped it up like teenagers at an “American Idol” concert.
“This is the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me since Barbara agreed to marry me,” Wilson boomed in a rich Texas baritone after he took the microphone and the wall-to-wall standing ovation had finally tamped down. (Yes, the man once described as “the biggest playboy in Congress” traded in the swinging-single life for wedded bliss to Mrs. Barbara Wilson six years ago. But more on that later.)
He paid tribute to Avrakotos, “my fierce, fearless, communist-hating Greek from Aliquippa, Pennsylvania,” who forced the CIA to carry out the mandate of Congress.
“Through it all — and this is unbelievable — there was never a vote, never a speech on the floor, never a press conference, never a leak … never a hint of recrimination, and never a scintilla of partisanship,” Wilson recalled of the effort.
With a film project in the works based on journalist George Crile’s 2003 bestseller, “Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History” — and possibly with Tom Hanks in the title role — the former Texas Congressman slyly joked, “I think I kinda fit the bill of Forrest Gump, without the charm.”
Afterwards, Wilson — dapperly attired in a double-breasted suit with monogrammed cuffs and Old Glory cufflinks — held court as an endless stream of well-wishers came by for a quick photo, an autograph or just a hug. They ranged from a Jesuit priest to a bright-eyed Republican National Committee staffer.
Among these was Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), who’d hurried over from “Lloyd Cutler’s funeral and a meeting with President Mandela,” to let Wilson know he was “equal to all these.”
Also on hand Monday night were at least a dozen “Charlie’s Angels,” as the comely young women who once staffed his Congressional office were known.
One of these, Delores Haynes, now an aide to Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.), remembered being told by Wilson’s chief of staff before being hired: “Let me let Charlie see you.”
“Those were the good old days,” she laughed, adding that Wilson was “the best boss I’ve ever had. … He called us his little darlings.”
And anyway, the crazy days of hot tub parties, drinking, allegations (unproven) of cocaine use and women, women, women are “over with a capital O,” Wilson averred as he headed to a post-tribute reception, chalking up his reputation as a hard-partying Casanova to “scurrilous lies by the KGB.”
Wilson’s randy side popped up at the reception that followed, however. In front of a packed Rayburn foyer, he told a story about the tense days on the Hill after the 1976 sex scandal involving Rep. Wayne Hays (D-Ohio) and his secretary who famously said, “I can’t type, I can’t file, I can’t even answer the phone.”
As luck would have it, at that time, Wilson was in need of firing his receptionist, he said. When a Washington Post reporter duly phoned his office a few days later to inquire about the dismissal, saying, “We have it on good authority you fired blankety blank because she wouldn’t have sex with you,” he shot back: “She couldn’t get laid on a troop train.” Needless to say, The Washington Post never printed the remark.
“He was kind of a gay blade,” said former House Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.), invoking the swashbuckling literary character Zorro. Later, Michel seemed to have second thoughts about the comment. “We ought not to think of Charlie only in a light sort of way,” the jolly former Republican leader said, pointing to all the serious things Wilson had accomplished.
At nearly 72, Wilson may no longer cavort with beauty queens or belly dancers (he once brought one to Egypt to entertain the Egyptian defense minister and others) but he still has a yen for dancing girls. Barbara Wilson, “The woman who caught Charlie,” as DeLay dubbed her earlier in the evening, is a former ballerina. In heels, the petite, trim Barbara, sporting an American flag top and navy blue suit, barely reached her towering 6-foot-4-inch husband’s shoulder.
“I got no pole,” she laughed, a large red rose pinned to the side of her black bun adding the air of a patriotic Carmen to her mien. She and Wilson met 20 years ago at a Democratic fundraiser, dated for a few years, then parted due to his extended “mid-life crisis thing,” Barbara recalled.
Seventeen years later they reunited and married within six months. “I’ve got what’s left of him,” she quipped, stroking this scribe’s arm with a grimace, although she quickly added that Wilson was now a model husband. “I love being Mrs. Wilson,” she laughed.
Wilson, who has worked as a Washington lobbyist since leaving Congress in 1997 after 24 years in the House, now plans to fill his days with bird-watching and “playing dominos under the trees” at his Lufkin, Texas, home.
“I was getting tired of going to work every morning,” Wilson said, adding that he hoped to locate an ivory-billed woodpecker in the Big Thicket, the 97,000-acre Lone Star nature preserve.
Even in retirement, Wilson may still do a “tiny bit” of lobbying, though he wouldn’t say for whom. “Look at the reports and find out,” he said.