Remembering my friend, Charlie Wilson

By Robert Mrazek
Sunday, February 14, 2010

Charlie Wilson crossed over the river last week into the great unknown, the final quest of a man who was the last of the larger-than-life characters to serve in the United States Congress at the end of the last century. I'm not sure there will ever be anyone quite like him.

One Wednesday morning about 20 years ago, Charlie came up to me on the House floor shortly after we had voted on an appropriations bill.

"Mrazek, you doing anything this weekend?" he asked.

"Just going back to the district," I said.

"Well, I'm going down to the Galapagos Islands this weekend. A friend of mine has a Learjet. You want to come? Bring anyone you want."

Charlie brought a gorgeous Swedish American model with him. I brought my 10-year-old daughter, Susannah. It was one of the most extraordinary trips of my life. We were back in Washington for votes the following Tuesday morning.

At 6-foot-4, Charlie often wore boots and a cowboy hat that made him almost seven feet tall. He adored the movie they made about him in 2007, "Charlie Wilson's War," although he had serious doubts that Tom Hanks could pull off the job of playing him. Charlie saw Jeff Bridges and Dennis Quaid as much better fits -- or Errol Flynn, if he had still been alive. For all of Hanks's remarkable acting ability, I don't think he captured the sheer magnetism of the man.

Charlie had a rare combination of personal charm, physical presence, passion and intelligence, and he used it to single-handedly change the course of history in Afghanistan. It's no coincidence that his favorite author, aside from Winston Churchill, was George MacDonald Fraser, who created the Harry Flashman series of historical novels, which begin with the defeat of Gen. Elphinstone's Anglo-Indian army in Afghanistan in 1842.

One of the things that a 100-minute movie necessarily shortchanged was how effective Charlie could be in persuading colleagues to support him. The movie suggested that all it took for him to secure funding for the Afghan freedom fighters was to win over a naive Clarence "Doc" Long, then the chairman of the foreign operations panel of the House Appropriations Committee. Not true. I sat next to Charlie on that subcommittee for six years. He horse-traded with the skill of P.T. Barnum. Every year in the '80s, he rolled me on unconditional aid for Pakistan.

"They're building the bomb, Charlie," I would say.

"They're a growing democracy . . . we need them," he would say.

Charlie needed Pakistan to support his freedom fighters. His biggest disappointment came after the war was won and the United States ended its support, leaving a vacuum for the Taliban.

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