Former Texas Rep. Charlie Wilson, 76, died in his hometown of Lufkin Wednesday (Feb. 10). CNN news anchor Wolf Blitzer immediately offered tribute to him as "a great man in many respects." Blitzer may have been confusing him with Tom Hanks, who played Wilson in the film Charlie Wilson's War.
Wilson was great in many ways: A great womanizer, a great drinker, a great spoils-system practitioner, a great burden to taxpayers, and, to followers of politics, a great example of a man who can get away with just about anything because he is regarded as "a character." He also could be characterized as an early facilitator of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda movement.
For many years in the capital, the mention of Wilson's name would bring smiles. "Old Charlie, what a character!" my friend Harry McPherson, a Texan and President Johnson's White House counsel, once said when I mentioned one of Wilson's latest peccadilos. There are thousands of Charlie Wilson stories dealing with his early days in Texas — his never-ending string of shapely girlfriends (Wilson was married for years and never divorced), his Las Vegas escapades, and his back-scratching legislative dealmaking.
But he likely will be best remembered as the man who covertly channeled $5 billion worth of weapons and support to Afghan rebels who were plaguing Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Included among those weapons were Stinger ground-to-air missiles that helped turn the tide in the rebels' battle against occupying Soviet forces. Afterward, the weapons, including the Stingers, stayed in-country and helped arm bin Laden's Al Qaeda forces and the Taliban.
Wilson was a fierce anti-Communist whose heart was captured by the Taliban when he toured their camps during their anti-Soviet fight. Afterward, he worked with the Central Intelligence Agency to channel money and weapons to the rebels, often outside normal channels. His congressional committee positions gave him leverage to do so. His support for the Taliban made him a favorite as well in neighboring Pakistan, where he became a celebrity. Along the way, he saw to it the Pakistan Government put on retainer some of his political cronies.
Soviet forces withdrew, demoralized, from Afghanistan. "Charlie Wilson's War" helped cause it. But it also set the stage for the ensuing Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, the rise of Al Qaeda, and the ensuing terrorist mess which plagues us today.
Wilson had heart trouble and retired from Congress in 1995 after 23 years' service. It was speculated at the time that he retired to avoid the embarrassment of corruption charges. "He was a rascal but he was our rascal," the mayor Lufkin was quoted as saying yesterday after Wilson's death. Charlie Wilson. What a character.