Former Rep. Charlie Wilson dies; led U.S. support of Afghans against Soviets

By Emily Langer and T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 11, 2010; B04

Former U.S. representative Charlie Wilson, a flamboyant 12-term East Texas Democrat who used his control of CIA purse strings to finance and arm an Afghan insurgency that drove out the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, died Feb. 10 at a hospital in Lufkin, Tex. He was 76 and had a history of heart ailments.

Mr. Wilson's epic overseas engagements outlive him. The power vacuum left in Afghanistan when the Soviets exited in 1989 contributed to the rise of the Taliban, and the weapons that Mr. Wilson helped bring to that country were probably in use when the United States went to war there in 2001.

"We were fighting the evil empire," he told Time magazine in 2007. "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?"

If Gust Avrakotos was the CIA agent who got the mules that carried automatic weapons, antitank guns and satellite maps from Pakistan to the Afghan mujaheddin, Mr. Wilson was the congressman who used his position on the Appropriations Committee to supply the cash to make it all happen. Beginning in the early 1980s, he orchestrated the secret effort to funnel billions of dollars to the Afghan battles that would later take his name: Charlie Wilson's War.

Published in 2003, investigative journalist George Crile's book of that title told what was then the largely unknown story of Mr. Wilson's key role in a decisive Cold War battle zone. In the 2007 film adaptation, Tom Hanks portrayed Mr. Wilson and Philip Seymour Hoffman played Avrakotos.

Mr. Wilson, who served in the House from 1973 until declining to seek reelection in 1996, was not a particularly prominent legislator. Nicknamed "Good Time Charlie," he was better known for his penchant for wild parties and wilder women. Tall, sinewy and with matinee idol looks, he frolicked in hot tubs with Vegas showgirls and staffed his office with a parade of young female assistants of dubious qualifications, who were dubbed "Charlie's angels."

Mr. Wilson embraced his reputation as a liquor-soaked party animal, telling an interviewer that his constituents "don't care so much if I am a single man and have dinner with a pretty lady every now and then, although as you get to be 61, that becomes less of a concern."

The most important woman in his life, at least as far as Afghanistan was concerned, was Joanne Herring, a Houston socialite who persuaded him to stop in Pakistan at the end of a fact-finding trip to the Middle East in 1982. In Herring's view, Pakistan, run by military leader Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, was the outpost from which to fight the communists in Afghanistan.

The military officials there told Mr. Wilson what they needed: aid for the refugees fleeing the Soviet occupation of their neighbor to the west and, most of all, firepower. Mr. Wilson, long hawkish on defense matters, turned even fiercer when it came the communist threat in that part of Asia. He said he wanted to make sure Afghans could do "everything possible to kill Russians, as painfully as possible."

In 1989, the Soviets backed out of Afghanistan after a decade of fighting. Interviewed on "60 Minutes," Zia said, "Charlie did it."

Introduction to politics

Charles Nesbitt Wilson was born June 1, 1933, in Trinity, Tex., where as a boy he got his first taste of the power of politics.

Mr. Wilson's dog, Teddy, often ventured into his neighbor's yard and soiled the flower beds. As Mr. Wilson explained in Crile's book, the frustrated neighbor, Charles Hazard, who was an elected city official, grew tired of the nuisance and conspired to kill the dog.

The young Mr. Wilson watched in horror one afternoon as the dog died in front of his eyes, poisoned by tiny shreds of glass that had been mixed with meat and placed into the dog's food bowl.

Determined to seek his beloved pet's revenge, Mr. Wilson first poured gasoline on his neighbor's precious plants and lit them on fire. But while watching the flower beds burn to a crisp, he felt unsatisfied and came up with a plan that would really make an impact on the city councilman.

It was an election year, and Mr. Wilson, then 13, decided he'd drive around town and offer voters a free ride to the polls. Before they got out of his truck for the booths, Mr. Wilson told the constituents, "I don't want to influence your vote, but I'd like you to know that Charles Hazard poisoned my dog."

Nearly 400 people voted that day. Mr. Wilson estimated that he took 95 of them to the polls. Hazard lost by 16 votes.

An unimpressive plebe

Mr. Wilson's father, an accountant for a timber company, lobbied local congressmen to help his son gain an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. Mr. Wilson's insouciant behavior as a plebe foreshadowed his later career in Congress: He was usually late for curfew, his shoes were rarely shined, and he did not excel in the classroom.

In 1956, he graduated eighth from the bottom of his class with the distinction of accumulating the most demerits of any midshipman in memory.

He received his commission as an ensign in the Navy and served nearly five years, until he was inspired by the presidential election of John F. Kennedy to run for political office. Even though it was illegal for an active-duty serviceman to campaign, Mr. Wilson took his last 30 days' leave in the Navy to go door to door asking for votes as a Texas state representative.

In 1961, at age 27, Mr. Wilson was sworn into office in Austin, where he served the first 12 years of his political career -- six years in the state House and six in the state Senate -- and gained the nickname the "liberal from Lufkin."

Mr. Wilson was often considered liberal on economic and social causes but nonetheless delighted in tweaking feminists who criticized his unrepentant womanizing.

"Feminists like me," he told Texas columnist Molly Ivins, "because I am an unapologetic sexist, chauvinist redneck . . . who . . . votes with 'em every time. I have proven that I can vote with 'em without kissing their ass. I try not to let 'em know I vote with 'em. It's more fun to have 'em mad at me."

Mr. Wilson was among the congressmen implicated in a Justice Department investigation into illicit drug use. Leading the probe was a little-known Justice Department attorney, Rudolph Giuliani, who found that the Texas representative may have snorted cocaine while on a trip to Las Vegas. Mr. Wilson described the episode in Crile's book, saying he was in Vegas enjoying the warmth of a hot tub and two naked showgirls who had "long, red fingernails with an endless supply of beautiful white powder."

The investigation proved fruitless, and in 1983 Giuliani decided not to file criminal charges against Mr. Wilson, citing a lack of evidence.

"The Feds spent a million bucks trying to figure out whether, when those fingernails passed underneath my nose, did I inhale or exhale," Mr. Wilson told Crile. "I ain't telling."

To celebrate the revelation, Mr. Wilson held a "Beat the Rap" party in his honor.

His marriage to Jerry Wilson ended in divorce, and he later married former ballerina Barbara Alberstadt. A complete list of survivors was unavailable.

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