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Charles Wilson

(Photo ca. 1995)

Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Texas's 2nd district
In office
January 3, 1973 – October 8, 1996
Preceded by John Dowdy
Succeeded by Jim Turner

Born June 1, 1933(1933-06-01)
Trinity, Texas
Died February 10, 2010 (aged 76)
Lufkin, Texas
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Barbara Alberstadt
Occupation Naval officer
Congressman

Charles Nesbitt Wilson (June 1, 1933 – February 10, 2010) was a United States naval officer and former 12-term Democratic United States Representative from the 2nd congressional district in Texas.

He was best known for leading Congress into supporting Operation Cyclone, the largest-ever Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) covert operation, which under the Reagan administration supplied military equipment, including anti-aircraft weapons such as Stinger antiaircraft missiles, and paramilitary officers from their Special Activities Division to the Afghan Mujahideen during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. His behind-the-scenes campaign was the subject of the non-fiction book Charlie Wilson's War by George Crile and a subsequent film adaptation starring Tom Hanks as Wilson.

Contents

Early life and naval career

Wilson was born in the small town of Trinity, Texas, where he attended public schools and graduated from Trinity High School in 1951. While a student at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, he was appointed to the United States Naval Academy, where he received a B.S. and graduated eighth from the bottom of his class in 1956.[1] He received the second-highest number of demerits in the Academy's history.[2]

Between 1956 and 1960, Wilson served in the United States Navy, attaining the rank of lieutenant. Following four years as a surface fleet officer, he was assigned to the Pentagon as part of an intelligence unit that evaluated the Soviet Union’s nuclear forces.

Entry into politics

It is speculated that Wilson first entered politics as a teenager by running a campaign against his next-door neighbor, city council incumbent Charles Hazard. When Wilson was 13, his dog entered Hazard's yard. Hazard retaliated by mixing crushed glass into the dog's food, causing fatal internal bleeding. Being a farmer's son, Wilson was able to get a driving permit at age 13, which enabled him to drive 96 voters, mainly black citizens from poor neighborhoods, to the polls. As they left the car, it is speculated that he told each of them that he didn't want to influence their vote, but that the incumbent Hazard had purposely killed his dog. After Hazard was defeated by a margin of 16 votes, Wilson went to his house to tell him he shouldn't poison any more dogs.[3] Wilson cited this as "the day [he] fell in love with America." This event was retold in the 2007 film Charlie Wilson's War.

As an adult, Wilson stayed out of politics until he was moved to volunteer for the John F. Kennedy presidential campaign. In 1960, after taking 30 days leave from the Navy, Wilson entered his name into the race for Texas state representative from his home district. This action was against the regulations of the Navy, as service members are prohibited from holding a public office while on active duty. While Wilson was back on duty, his family and friends went door to door campaigning. In 1961, at age 27, he was sworn into office in Austin, Texas.

For the next 12 years, Wilson made his reputation in the Texas legislature as the "liberal from Lufkin", viewed with suspicion by business interests. He battled for the regulation of utilities, fought for Medicaid, tax exemptions for the elderly, the Equal Rights Amendment, and a minimum wage bill. He was also one of the few prominent Texas politicians to be pro-choice. Wilson was notorious for his personal life, particularly drinking, cocaine use, and womanizing, and he picked up the nickname "Good Time Charlie".

In 1972, Wilson was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from the Second District of Texas, taking office the following January. He was re-elected 11 times, but was not a candidate for reelection to the One Hundred Fifth Congress and resigned October 8, 1996.

Support for the Somoza government in Nicaragua

In the late 1970s, Wilson strongly supported the right-wing Somoza government in Nicaragua. His admiration for Somoza was unaffected by the dictator's unsuccessful effort to bribe him.[4] Wilson saw Somoza as an abandoned and betrayed U.S. ally, and he ran a rearguard action in the House appropriations committee attempting to save Somoza's regime, at one point threatening to wreck President Carter's Panama Canal Treaty if the U.S. did not resume supporting Somoza.[5]

Wilson later arranged a meeting between Somoza and Ed Wilson (a CIA agent) who offered to form a 1000-man force of ex-CIA operatives to fight on Somoza's behalf. The meeting collapsed when Somoza fondled Tina Simons, Wilson's girlfriend, and the deal proved impossible after Somoza declined to pay $100-million for the 1000-man force.[6]

Soviet-Afghan war

In 1980, Wilson read an Associated Press dispatch on the congressional wires describing the refugees fleeing Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. The communist Democratic Republic of Afghanistan had taken over power during the Afghan Civil War and asked the Soviet Union to help suppress resistance from the mujahideen. According to biographer George Crile III, Wilson called the staff of the House Appropriations Committee dealing with "black appropriations" and requested a two-fold appropriation increase for Afghanistan. Because Wilson had just been named to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense (which is responsible for funding CIA operations), his request went through.[7]

That was not the last time he increased the CIA budget for its Afghan operation. In 1983, he won an additional $40 million, $17 million of which was allocated for anti-aircraft weapons to shoot down Mil Mi-24 Hind helicopters.[8] The next year, CIA officer Gust Avrakotos directly approached Wilson – breaking the CIA's policy against lobbying Congress for money – asking Wilson for $50 million more. Wilson agreed and convinced Congress, saying, "The U.S. had nothing whatsoever to do with these people's decision to fight ... but we'll be damned by history if we let them fight with stones."[9] Later, Wilson succeeded in giving the Afghans $300 million of unused Pentagon money before the end of the fiscal year.[10] Thus, Wilson directly influenced the level of U.S. support for the Afghan Mujahideen. Wilson has said that the covert operation succeeded because "there was no partisanship or damaging leaks."[11] Michael Pillsbury, a senior Pentagon official, used Wilson's funding to provide Stinger missiles to the Afghan resistance in a controversial decision.

Joanne Herring played a significant role in helping the Afghan resistance fighters get support and military equipment from the U.S. government. She persuaded Wilson to visit the Pakistani leadership, and after meeting with them he was taken to a major Pakistan-based Afghan refugee camp so he could see for himself the atrocities committed by the Soviets against the Afghan people. About that visit, Wilson later said that it "was the experience that will always be seared in my memory, was going through those hospitals and seeing, especially those children with their hands blown off from the mines that the Soviets were dropping from their helicopters. That was perhaps the deciding thing... and it made a huge difference for the next 10 or 12 years of my life because I left those hospitals determined, as long as I had a breath in my body and was a member in Congress, that I was going to do what I could to make the Soviets pay for what they were doing!" In 2008, Wilson said he had "got involved in Afghanistan because I went there and I saw what the Soviets were doing. And I saw the refugee camps."[12]

For his efforts, Wilson was presented with the Honored Colleague Award by the CIA. He became the first civilian to receive the award.[13] However, Wilson's role remains controversial because most of the aid was supplied to Islamist hardliner Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, now a senior Taliban leader and a supporter of al-Qaeda.[14]

The decision of the Soviet Union to withdraw from Afghanistan and declare the invasion a mistake led to Wilson commending the Soviet leadership on the floor of the House of Representatives. He also supported United States involvement in the Bosnian War, touring the former Yugoslavia over five days in January 1993; on his return he urged the Clinton administration to lift the arms embargo on Bosnia, remarking "This is good vs. evil, and if we do not want to Americanize this, then what do we want to Americanize? We have to stand for something."[15]

Drug and alcohol use

In 1980, Wilson was accused of using cocaine at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas; however, the investigation by Justice Department attorney Rudolph Giuliani was dropped due to lack of evidence.[16] Liz Wickersham told investigators that she saw Charlie use cocaine only once in the Cayman Islands, however this was outside US jurisdiction.[17] In "The Charlie Wilson Real Story" Wilson reveals he traveled to Las Vegas in the summer of 1980, and recalls an experience with two strippers in a hot tub.

The girls had cocaine, and the music was loud. It was total happiness. And both of them had ten long, red fingernails with an endless supply of beautiful white powder.... The feds spent a million bucks trying to figure out whether, when those fingernails passed under my nose, did I inhale or exhale, and I ain't telling.
— Charile Wilson[1]

When questioned about his alleged cocaine use in 2007 Wilson reaffirmed "Nobody knows the answer to that and I ain't telling".[18]

Wilson was involved in a drunken hit-and-run accident on the Washington DC's Key Bridge just before his first visit to Pakistan. A witness stated that she saw Wilson's Lincoln Continental hit a Mazda, and she took down his license plate, however Wilson was never convicted.[17]

One time I had barely gotten out of a DUI. They made me go to a class, at 7:30 on Saturday mornings, about not drinking whiskey.
— Charlie Wilson[19]

Wilson's admirers defended him in the History Channel documentary, The True Story of Charlie Wilson, stating he drank that night to ease the pain he felt for the plight of the Afghan people. After noting the incident was not portrayed in the film Charlie Wilson's War, Wilson said: "I got off easy".[17]

Retirement

Wilson retired from Congress in 1997 to live in Lufkin, Texas.[20] In February 1999, Wilson married Barbara Alberstadt, a ballerina he met at a party in Washington in 1980.

In September 2007, after two months on an organ transplantation waiting list, Wilson received the heart of a 35-year-old donor. Years of heavy drinking may have put a strain on his heart; in 1985, he had been told by a doctor that he had 18 months to live.[21]

Death

Wilson died on February 10, 2010 at Lufkin Memorial Hospital in Lufkin, Texas, where he had been taken after collapsing earlier in the day.[22] He suffered from cardiopulmonary arrest.[23] He was pronounced dead at 12:16 P.M. Central Time.[24][25] "America has lost an extraordinary patriot whose life showed that one brave and determined person can alter the course of history", said Robert Gates, the US Defense Secretary.[26][27]

Wilson received a graveside service with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery on February 23, 2010.[28]

Cultural references

Wilson's successful efforts to increase the funding of the anti-Soviet Afghan war were revealed in the book Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History (2003), by George Crile III. In the 2007 film version of the book, actor Tom Hanks portrayed Wilson.[29] The movie portrayed him as a politically incorrect swashbuckler who liked the company of beautiful women.[30]

Wilson was a key character in Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (2005), by Steve Coll. On December 27, 2007, the History Channel broadcast The True Story of Charlie Wilson, a two-hour documentary about the congressman's Afghan war efforts and his personal life.

See also

References

  1. ^ a b Crile, George. Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press. 2003. p. 26. ISBN 0871138549
  2. ^ ""Charlie Wilson's War Against Convention Started at USNA," ''The Annapolis Capital'', December 30, 2007". Hometownannapolis.com. http://www.hometownannapolis.com/cgi-bin/readne/2007/12_30-46/TOP. Retrieved 2010-02-11. 
  3. ^ Crile, George (2004). Charlie Wilson's War. Atlantic Monthly Press. pp. 111–112. ISBN 0802141242. 
  4. ^ Crile, 36.
  5. ^ Crile, 30-36.
  6. ^ Crile, 38.
  7. ^ "Eduardo Real: ‘’Zbigniew Brzezinski, Defeated by his Success’’". Dangeroustravel.blogspot.com. http://dangeroustravel.blogspot.com/. Retrieved 2010-02-11. 
  8. ^ Crile, 214–5.
  9. ^ Crile, 259–62.
  10. ^ Crile, 409–13.
  11. ^ Wall Street Journal, December 28, 2007, p. W13
  12. ^ "US Congressman Who Backed Afghan Fighters Against the Soviets Dies"
  13. ^ "During book signing, Wilson recalls efforts to arm Afghans," Lufkin Daily News, November 11, 2003.
    Winthrop, Lynn. "During book signing, Wilson recalls efforts to arm Afghans". (November 11, 2003) The Lufkin Daily News. Retrieved via the Internet Archives Wayback Machine on February 11, 2010.
  14. ^ Bergen, Peter, Holy War Inc., Free Press, (2001), p.67
  15. ^ Philip D. Duncan and Christine C. Lawrence, "Congressional Quarterly's Politics in America 1996: the 104th Congress", CQ Press, 1996, p. 1254.
  16. ^ 22 December, 2007 Charlie Wilson, star of 'War,' says film does him justice Dallasnews.com
  17. ^ a b c Charlie Wilson's War Chasingthefrog.com
  18. ^ 22 December, 2007 The Real Charlie Wilson ABC News
  19. ^ Tom Hanks and Charlie Wilson Interview Grant, Meg. Readers Digest
  20. ^ McElwaine, Sandra (2007-12-06). "Charlie Wilson Regrets Nothing". Time.com. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1692047,00.html. Retrieved 2010-02-11. 
  21. ^ George Crile, Charlie Wilson's War, Atlantic, New York, 2002, page 382
  22. ^ "Charlie Wilson, lawmaker of movie fame, dies at 76". (February 10, 2010) Reuters. Retrieved February 10, 2010.
  23. ^ Martin, Douglas. "Charlie Wilson, Texas Congressman Linked to Foreign Intrigue, Dies at 76" (February 10, 2010) The New York Times. Retrieved February 10, 2010.
  24. ^ "Charlie Wilson dies". (February 10, 2010) KTRE. Retrieved February 10, 2010.
  25. ^ O'Rourke, Breffni (February 11, 2010). "Charlie Wilson, Congressman Who Helped Drive Soviets Out Of Afghanistan, Is Dead". rferl.com. http://www.rferl.org/content/ExUS_Lawmaker_Wilson_Dead_At_76/1954654.html. Retrieved February 22, 2010. 
  26. ^ Bone, James (February 12, 2010). "Death of 'Goodtime Charlie' Wilson, the hot tub heretic who played with history". The Times. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/us_and_americas/article7024365.ece. Retrieved February 22, 2010. 
  27. ^ "Editorial: Charlie Wilson was a colorful, consequential Texan". The Dallas Morning News. February 11, 2010. http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/opinion/editorials/stories/DN-wilson_0212edi.State.Edition1.244bf63.html. Retrieved February 22, 2010. 
  28. ^ "Memorial set for former Texas Rep. Charlie Wilson". The Dallas Morning News. February 11, 1010. http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/APStories/stories/D9DQ8LLO0.html. Retrieved February 22, 2010. 
  29. ^ ""Sticking to His Guns: Charlie Wilson: The Wild Card Image Was The Real Deal", By Peter Carlson, ''The Washington Post'', December 22, 2007". Washingtonpost.com. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/12/21/AR2007122102520.html. Retrieved 2010-02-11. 
  30. ^ "Charlie Wilson's Victory - The Democrat who helped win the Cold War"

External links

Texas House of Representatives
Preceded by
William Winston
Member of the Texas House of Representatives
from District 18 (Trinity)

1961–1963
Succeeded by
David Crews
Preceded by
Steve Burgess
Member of the Texas House of Representatives
from District 6 (Lufkin)

1963–1967
Succeeded by
David Crews
Texas Senate
Preceded by
Martin Dies, Jr.
Texas State Senator
from District 3 (Lufkin)

1967–1973
Succeeded by
Don Adams
United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
John Dowdy
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Texas's 2nd congressional district

1973–1997
Succeeded by
Jim Turner

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