Charlie Wilson's breed



We interrupt our regularly scheduled program to pay our respects to the last of a breed, the kind of politician who might never get elected today.

Former Texas Democratic congressman Charlie Wilson, who died yesterday at age 76, was a rakish, rollicking boozer who hated communists and loved the ladies with equal abandon, a politically incorrect Washington gamesman who teamed up during the '80s with a rogue CIA agent, plus a passel of arms dealers and foreign potentates, to secretly funnel American money and advanced weaponry to the anti-Soviet warlords in Afghanistan - thereby enabling those "freedom fighters" to bleed the Red Army invaders and hasten the final downfall of the Soviet Union.

What a corker of a yarn, Tom Clancy crossed with James Bond. I'd be tempted to say that Wilson's Cold War adventures might make a helluva movie, if not for the fact that Tom Hanks, Mike Nichols, and Aaron Sorkin already made that movie a few years ago. Check out Charlie Wilson's War. Washingtonians say that Hanks nailed "Good Time Charlie" to a T, while underplaying the congressman's most decadent proclivities.

A debate continues today about whether Wilson deserves any blame for the rise of the Taliban during the '90s. In his own immortal words, "We f----d up the end game." After the Soviets retreated from Afghanistan, a power vacuum was created, and many of Wilson's weapons (Stinger missiles, for instance) wound up in the hands of the bad guys who played host to Osama bin Laden. On the other hand, the power vacuum occurred in part because Washington refused to get involved; as Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a statement yesterday, "After the Soviets left, Charlie kept fighting for the Afghan people and warned against abandoning that traumatized country to its fate - a warning we should have heeded then, and should remember today."

Wilson retired in 1997, after having served 12 terms. It's just as well that he left Congress when he did, because it's hard to imagine him thriving in today's hyper-polarized 24/7 digital media hothouse.

For starters, he was a breed of Democrat that barely exists anymore - a socially progressive militarist, what used to be called a "Scoop Jackson Democrat," named for a once-famous senator, little remembered today, who was liberal on domestic issues but outspokenly hawkish on foreign affairs. (Wilson's opinion of communists, as articulated to a journalist: "The only thing those motherf-----s understand is hot lead and cold steel.") In today's ideological climate, Wilson would be thrashed on a daily basis by the left-leaning bloggers who detest Scoop heir Joe Lieberman.

And imagine how Wilson would have fared in an era of YouTube and TMZ. At one point, he was being investigated - by an ambitious young prosecutor named Rudy Giuliani - for allegedly snorting coke in a strip club. He was never convicted of anything; perhaps he was lucky that nobody in those days had cellphone cameras.

When he wasn't working the inside congressional game to get public money for his war in Afghanistan (working closely in that effort with Pennsylvania congressman John Murtha, who died on Monday), he was partying out in the open with a constellation of bimbos, and staffing his House office with blonde girls who presumably knew how to type. Wilson told a reporter in 1990 that, if a movie was ever made of his exploits, he hoped it would open with his character partying in a hot tub with two Vegas showgirls. The movie released in 2007 opens with his character partying in a hot tub with two Vegas showgirls.

Wilson used to say things like, "I am an unapologetic sexist, chauvinist redneck," the kind of remark that today would ricochet in real time across the blogosphere and bring condemnation down on his head. As the late Texas columnist Molly Ivins once wrote, "Congressman Wilson is the Hunter Thompson of the House of Representatives - a gonzo politician." Only a gonzo politician would work a deal like this: When House Democratic leaders wanted Wilson to serve for a year on an ethics committee, he agreed to do it only if the leaders appointed him for life to the board of the Kennedy Center. Done deal. He did a year on the ethics panel (he cared nothing about ethics), and in return he got the Kennedy board gig (he cared about getting access to all the exclusive parties).

And yet, this "unapologetic sexist" voted with the feminists on women's issues every time. His domestic voting record was strongly liberal, yet he got himself re-elected 11 times from a socially-conservative Texas district. The locals knew that Wilson was loaded a lot of the time, but they were always happy with him because he was brilliant at constituent service, thanks to his mastery of the Washington bureaucracy and congressional subcommittee apparatus - skills that are often derided today as "politics as usual."

Wilson had a heart transplant several years ago. He died yesterday after his second ticker failed; a life like his surely required several. In our polarized, poll-driven contemporary culture, which veritably demands that politicians be easily labeled, it's a shame we have so few remaining outsize characters, people like Wilson who embody the contradictions of the human condition.