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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)

"He loved that whole Kipling scene," says Bearden, laughing.

For all his antics, Wilson was deadly serious about the Afghan war, and he lobbied behind the scenes to win authorization to arm the rebels with shoulder-fired Stinger missiles that could shoot down Soviet aircraft. In 1986, the Stingers reached the rebels and proved very effective.

"After that, it was just a nightmare for the Soviets," says Bearden.

In 1989, after a decade of war, the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan. On "60 Minutes," when Pakistani dictator Zia ul-Haq was asked how the Afghan war was won, he simply said, "Charlie did it."

"Every once in a while, you have somebody who changes history, says Bearden, "and Charlie did that."

But history does not stop, it keeps on going, sometimes producing unintended consequences. In Afghanistan, the rebel groups who beat the Soviets started fighting each other. Wilson lobbied for money to help rebuild Afghanistan, but Congress wasn't much interested. The United States slowly disengaged.

After years of sectarian war, a group of brutal Islamic militants called the Taliban took over Afghanistan. They invited a Saudi named Osama bin Laden, who had aided the Afghan rebels during the war, to set up training camps in their country. And then . . .

But Wilson does not regret his actions in the Afghan war. "We were fighting the evil empire," he told Time magazine in a recent interview. "It would have been like not supplying the Soviets against Hitler in World War II. Anyway, who the hell had ever heard of the Taliban then?"

A Change of Heart

In 1993, Charlie Wilson celebrated his 60th birthday with a big party at the Kennedy Center. His ex-wife showed up and so did at least seven ex-girlfriends, which speaks well for the man.

"He asked me to dance," recalls Schroeder, "and somebody took a picture of us dancing and published it in The Washington Post and Charlie said, 'I've never been seen dancing with a woman that old! Those damn liberals printed it on purpose, showing me dancing with an old lady!' " She bursts out laughing.

Even at 60, Charlie was still Charlie, cracking jokes, chasing young women and winning easy reelection. But in 1996, after Newt Gingrich's Republicans took over the House, Wilson decided to retire after 24 years in the House.

"The good human juices don't flow there anymore," he grumbled to Larry L. King. "There's all this goddamned rigidity and two-bit hypocrisy."

Out of office, he became a lobbyist, representing the government of Pakistan, among other clients, and then the old bachelor settled down, marrying Barbara Alberstadt, a former ballerina whom he'd dated back in the '80s. In 2005, suffering from heart disease, he shut down his lobbying shop and moved back to East Texas, to a country house surrounded by dozens of bird feeders.

"I like my bird feeders and I like to read books," he told his hometown paper, the Lufkin Daily News. "I like spending time with my wife and visiting with my old friends."

Last summer, his doctors told him that his heart was so bad he'd die unless he got a new one. They put him on a waiting list for a transplant. On the night of Sept. 24, he was awakened by a phone call informing him that a donor heart was ready. Rushed to Houston's Methodist Hospital, he got a new heart -- a 35-year-old model that seems to be working well.

"He was up and around in two days," says his friend Joe Christie.

He wanted to live long enough to see the movie about himself, and he did. On Dec. 10, he flew to Hollywood in a private plane with his wife and his cardiologist, to attend the official premiere with the movie's stars, Hanks and Julia Roberts.

Two of Charlie's Angels -- Janet Ginsburg and Leslie Dawson -- managed to finagle tickets to the premiere, and they watched their old boss walk down the red carpet at Universal Studios.

"Charlie looked great," Ginsberg said a couple days later. "For the last few years, he didn't look healthy, but now he looks better than ever."

To prove her point, she pulled out a picture she took at the Hollywood premiere. It showed Charlie standing between two beautiful women and grinning like . . . well, like Charlie Wilson standing between two beautiful women.

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