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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)

In a 1988 interview, Wilson explained his victories in his own inimitable style: "You have to bring home the bacon, convince 'em you don't want to take no [bleep] off them Russkies, and you can't think of anything more obscene than gun control."

Of course, there was more to Wilson's popularity than that. Joe Christie, who served in the Texas legislature with Wilson, remembers the lawmaker's "mobile office" -- a trailer that traveled his district to help people with problems with Social Security checks or veterans benefits. And, says Christie, "He's an incredible campaigner."

"One time," says Schroeder, laughing, "he didn't hand out literature, he handed out gun rags -- rags for cleaning your gun -- with his name on them. . . . And his ads were hysterical. His ads were like: 'I eat raw meat for breakfast and then I tie the tail of a bobcat and then I fight commies.' "

His AK-47 ad became legendary. "He's standing in a boat in the Trinity River in East Texas," says Tindal, "and he has this AK-47, and he says something like, 'We're never gonna have these on the banks of the Trinity River.' And then he throws it in the river. We figured everybody would be swimming around the river looking for it, so we fished it out."

Wilson projected a cartoonish macho image but, says Schroeder, "it's all a big Texas act." Actually, he was smart, well-read and an extremely effective legislator. "He was very skilled," she says, "at pushing the right buttons on the Appropriations Committee."

"He was one of the best at maneuvering in committee," says Dicks, who served on the Appropriations Committee with Wilson.

Wilson used that skill -- pure political horse-trading -- to win ever-increasing funding for the Afghan rebels, which is, of course, the subject of "Charlie Wilson's War."

In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to save its failing puppet government. President Jimmy Carter protested by canceling grain sales to the Soviets and boycotting the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. Wilson thought the United States should go beyond protest and aid the Afghan rebels who were fighting the Soviets.

"Charlie absolutely detested the communists, and when Afghanistan hit, Charlie was really almost obsessed with the idea of making the Russians pay for this," says Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), who is now chairman of the Appropriations Committee. "He was hellbent on doing what we could for the Afghans."

"Charlie got Washington behind it," remembers Milt Bearden, who was the CIA station chief who helped run the Afghan war. "The irrepressible Charlie Wilson was pushing to get the money."

Using all his skills at backroom politics, Wilson maneuvered to get funding for the Afghan rebels -- overt funding for humanitarian aid and covert funding for weapons. "It's the only place in the world where we are killing Russians," he said in the early 1980s. "I don't know anybody who wants to be against backing religious freedom fighters against the atheistic horde from the north."

Wilson made more than a dozen trips to Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, where he was deeply moved by the courage and tenacity of the Afghans. Being Charlie, he also managed to have some fun. On one trip, he brought along his girlfriend, Annelise Ilschenko, a former Miss World USA. On another trip, he strapped on a gun, saddled up a horse and rode into Afghanistan with a group of rebels.

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