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Sticking to His Guns

Charlie Wilson and wife Barbara made a special trip to Los Angeles to attend the official premiere of
Charlie Wilson and wife Barbara made a special trip to Los Angeles to attend the official premiere of "Charlie Wilson's War." Wilson had a heart transplant in September, at age 74. (By Chris Pizzello -- Associated Press)

Wrong. Wilson really did bring a belly dancer to Cairo. And he really was an outrageous womanizer investigated for allegedly using cocaine with Vegas showgirls. And he really did wheel and deal to get the House Appropriations Committee to spend several billion dollars on covert CIA support for the Afghan rebels, who drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The movie is pretty accurate, as movies go. The problem is that director Mike Nichols had to leave out so much good stuff. If truth be told, the life of "Good Time Charlie" Wilson is way too wild and crazy to be captured in any movie shorter than the "Godfather" trilogy.

Mr. Wilson's Washington

Tall, thin and ridiculously handsome, Charlie Wilson came to Washington in 1973, a liberal Democrat who managed to get elected in conservative East Texas in the midst of the Nixon landslide of 1972 -- perhaps because he ran against the wife of the previous congressman, who'd been sent to prison for bribery.

An Annapolis graduate, former Navy officer and Texas legislator, Wilson arrived in Congress with his cowboy boots and his big booming laugh. He soon met another freshman Democrat -- Colorado feminist Patricia Schroeder -- and he sent her a gift. She opened it and found a picture in a pink frame. It showed a tombstone that read "Wife of Davy Crockett." There was also a note from Wilson: "In Texas, we don't even let women use their first name on their tombstones."

"I thought, 'Who is this Neanderthal?' and I stormed into his office," Schroeder recalls. "He burst out laughing. He has spent his whole life figuring out how to pull people's chains -- and he was pulling mine."

When he started laughing, she did, too, and they became fast friends. After that he called her "Babycakes" -- except on formal occasions, when he addressed her as "Congressman Babycakes."

"Everybody loves Charlie," she says. "He's one of those wonderful characters you don't see in politics anymore."

Recuperating back in Texas, Wilson did not respond to requests for an interview for this story, which is unfortunate, because the man has uttered some of the greatest quotes to come out of Congress since Huey Long left. Here, for instance, is how he explained why he never sought a leadership post in the House: "I just don't give a [bleep] who the assistant deputy whip is."

Politically, he was a moderate -- liberal on social issues like abortion and civil rights, but a vehement hawk on defense, voting for the B-1 bomber, the MX missile and the neutron bomb. He might have remained an obscure backbencher if not for two prominent personality traits -- a mischievous wit and an overactive libido.

He was married when he arrived in Congress, but that didn't last long. The '70s was the age of disco, and Wilson became part-owner of a flashy K Street dance club called Elan, which was not known as a hotbed of monogamy. "He had a love of whiskey and a love of the ladies," says his friend Larry L. King, author of "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas." In 1978, Wilson's lifestyle inspired a Washington Post profile headlined "Charles Wilson: Every Day's a Party for Him."

"My constituents know they're not electing a constipated monk," Wilson said.

"He was quite the ladies' man," recalls Rep. Norman Dicks (D-Wash.). "He had an amazing apartment, a real bachelor pad with a hot tub and mirrors, and he loved to throw parties."

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