So many Charlie Wilson stories. So little time.
Here is Wilson, the House of Representatives' premier commie fighter and resident bon vivant, standing outside a posh Houston hotel late this spring after attending a $5,000-a-head Democratic Party fund-raiser with Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) and a half dozen of his Texas Democratic colleagues.
Wilson, as tall, thin and ramrod-straight as the loblolly pines that blanket his East Texas district ("the only man I've ever met who can strut sitting down," a former House colleague once said of him), reaches past his ever-present suspenders into his Lewis & Thomas Saltz suit jacket and extricates a handful of snapshots. The photos are of a stunning blonde with legs that won't quit, and Wilson, 57, has a grin as wide as the Lone Star State as he shows off his latest romantic interest.
The woman is Yana Anastasia Lisitsina, a 24-year-old folk dancing instructor from Moscow. Wilson met her during a trip to the Soviet Union last winter, and after clearing it with his CIA buddies -- he does, after all, sit on the House Intelligence Committee, where he is privy to the kind of information the KGB might take an interest in -- invited her over to the United States this spring.
So what is Charlie Wilson -- the same Charlie Wilson who said during his long crusade to funnel covert U.S. military aid to the mujaheddin rebels in Afghanistan that he wanted "to do everything possible to kill Russians, as painfully as possible" -- what is Charlie Wilson doing squiring a drop-dead-beautiful Soviet around Washington?
"This," explains Wilson as his House colleagues eyeball the snapshots in what is obviously a fairly regular Texas delegation ritual, "is my personal contribution to perestroika."
"Charlie is a man's man. He enjoys women and war more than anyone I know. He makes Arnold Schwarzenegger look like George Bush." -- Texas gubernatorial candidate Ann Richards, during a roast of Wilson in 1987
If truth be told, Wilson probably would have invited Lisitsina over even without Gorbachev, even without glasnost, even without the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Cold War. Because when it comes down to a choice between war and women, Charlie Wilson is definitely conflicted.
Of course Wilson himself wouldn't put it quite that way. He'd say war and chicks, and somehow get away with the kind of retrograde sexist remark that would scuttle the careers of most politicians.
Here is how Texas writer Molly Ivins explained Wilson's pre-feminist-era charm in a February 1988 article in Ms. Magazine:
"I've been worrying about my fitness to write for Ms. Magazine on account of I like Charlie Wilson. Good Lord, that is embarrassing. Congressman Wilson is the Hunter Thompson of the House of Representatives; a gonzo politician. He's a sexist and has made war a spectator sport. By way of redeeming social value, he's funny, a good congressman for his district, and hasn't an ounce of hypocrisy. ... I called Wilson to ask him why we like him, thinking he might know. He said: 'Feminists like me 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.' "
"I am prepared to say that perhaps the empire is not as evil as it once was." -- Wilson after returning from a tripto the Soviet Union earlier this year
For Wilson, who has spent much of his congressional career making life as difficult as possible for the Soviets, the thawing of the Cold War has put him into a kind of rhetorical Chapter 11. The kind of bloodcurdling statements he used to make about Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan -- "I want 'em bad wounded, you understand," Wilson told the Houston Post in 1986, "like blind" -- now seem hopelessly anachronistic.
But Saddam Hussein has put Wilson, at least for the moment, back in business. He ardently supports President Bush's military response to the Persian Gulf crisis and says the Iraqi aggression against Kuwait will make it easier for pro-Pentagon congressmen like himself to argue against a "meltdown" in the defense budget.
For the past week, Wilson has been at home in East Texas, touring his district and discovering that his constituents share his belief that the time has come for the United States to "kick a little ass" in the Mideast.
Though Wilson says Saddam is unpredictable enough to provoke a "few days of spectacular target practice," he expects the showdown will evolve into a protracted standoff that will test the patience of the American public but eventually wear Saddam down through economic pressure.
Wilson is encouraged by the worldwide cooperation in the economic boycott and blockade of Iraq, but wonders whether it will hold up.
"You have to watch the Japanese carefully," he says with characteristic bluntness. "They'll buy anything if it's cheap enough."
"Soldier, lover, adventurer, he fought and wenched his way to glory." -- Blurb on the cover of George MacDonald Fraser's novel "Flashman"
"To understand me," says Wilson, "you have to read 'Flashman,' " Fraser's fictional account of a 19th-century British officer who loved a good war -- as long as he wasn't at risk -- but loved women even more.
Actually, you can get a pretty good read on Wilson -- or at least the flamboyant side he likes to show to the world -- from a quick tour of his house on Hurricane Creek in Lufkin, Tex., a house that is part armory, part pinup palace and part nature preserve.
Start with Wilson's gun cabinet, which occupies an entire wall of his den and contains enough firepower to outfit a reinforced rifle company. Much of the exotic hardware he picked up during more than a dozen visits to Pakistan and Afghanistan to check on the progress of his war with the Soviets; some of the arms were gifts from "the muj," some he bought in the weapons bazaar in Darra Adam Kheel in Pakistan that he calls "little boy heaven." On the question of how he got them into the United States, Wilson is uncharacteristically evasive.
At the top is a Soviet rocket-propelled grenade launcher. On the far right is a rare Soviet AK-47 with a drum magazine. Above that is a Soviet officer's Karakov automatic rifle. Then there's the standard issue AK-47, the Israeli Galil assault rifle, the U.S. M-16, the Soviet World War II-era submachine gun, the Pakistani G-3, an Israeli sniper rifle, a .44 Winchester and a reproduction of a .303 Enfield, the ancient British rifle that the mujaheddin relied on until Wilson persuaded the Appropriations Committee to double U.S. covert military aid and they switched to Kalashnikovs.
There's also a collection of sidearms, and a spare AK-47 under Wilson's oversize bed. And back in Washington, mounted on a wall in his congressional office, is the gripstock from the first U.S.-supplied shoulder-fired Stinger missile to bring down a Soviet helicopter in Afghanistan in 1986.
"I may abuse the First Amendment," says Wilson, who has just voted to amend the Constitution to ban flag burning, "but never, by God, the Second."
On an adjacent wall is a large color photo of Wilson and some heavily armed mujaheddin on horseback, 30 kilometers inside Afghanistan during one of Wilson's frequent trips to the war zone. Wearing an Afghan hat and a rakish smile, Wilson is sitting astride a great white horse, looking for all the world like his fictional hero, Flashman.
On another wall is a plaque, with an inscription written by Wilson, memorializing his fondness for Flashman:
"The mission of Flashman's Freedom Fighters is to kill as many godless Communist bastards and their subhuman immoral cohorts as possible with the least expenditure of munitions, and to integrate all supporting fires to restore cave dwelling as an accepted way of life in the former communist region."
And on a coffee table in the living room sits the ultimate in ironic bric-a-brac: a menorah made out of rifle cartridges, given to Wilson by Israeli Military Industries. "The only one in the world," says Wilson. "I've done a lot for IMI."
"He's a straight-up, capable legislator, and that may get missed by some people." -- Rep. Michael A. Andrews (D-Tex.)
Earlier this year, the 19 Democratic members of the House from Texas met over lunch on the first floor of the Capitol to decide who among several lawmakers from other states they would support for an opening on the all-important Appropriations Committee. That kind of decision is taken seriously among Texans, whose internal muscle in the House has allowed the state to cart off large chunks of the federal budget year in and year out.
Wilson, who has played no small part in that successful record as a senior member of Appropriations, listened as Rep. Marvin Leath cautioned against supporting one candidate. Leath, according to the accounts of several members, suggested the lawmaker in question was just too dumb to be on Appropriations.
"Be careful, Marvin," interrupted Wilson. "There's been many a day we could use a person like that."
Texas Democrats like to tell that story not only because it is vintage Wilson, but because it underscores one of the truths about their colleague that often gets obscured by his reputation as a playboy and bloodthirsty anti-communist. Wilson may cultivate the public persona of a hard-drinking, women-chasing, gun-worshiping Texas archetype, but underneath he is one of the shrewdest and most effective back-room players in the House -- "when he's on his game," adds a Texas colleague.
"He's a very underrated legislator," says Rep. Robert J. Mrazek (D-N.Y.), who sits on the foreign operations subcommittee of Appropriations with Wilson. "He's as good as there is when he's working at it."
With the exception of Appropriations Committee Chairman Jamie Whitten (D-Miss.), says Mrazek, "I don't think anyone has more effectively accomplished his issues agenda as well as Charlie."
For years, Wilson has stymied Mrazek's attempts to cut foreign aid to Pakistan because of evidence that country has been secretly building nuclear weapons. In part because Pakistan was the critical link in getting military supplies to the mujaheddin, Wilson always opposed any cuts. "Charlie was singlehandedly responsible for adding $200 million a year to Pakistan," says Mrazek.
And it was Wilson, by doubling administration requests for covert aid to the Afghan rebels every year, who bludgeoned the CIA into stronger support of the mujaheddin. As a member of the defense subcommittee on Appropriations -- from a district with no military installations or major defense contractors -- Wilson was perfectly situated to support his colleagues' pet projects in return for their votes for covert aid. "There was nothing I wouldn't trade, nothing," Wilson told Harry Reasoner during a "60 Minutes" profile of his Afghan adventures.
"He's one of the best horse traders in the House," notes Rep. Michael A. Andrews, a Texas colleague. "He has as good a political judgment and instincts of anyone I've known in politics."
When Andrews was first seeking a plum assignment on the Ways and Means Committee, Wilson served as his confidant and adviser. Though Andrews was sure he had 18 votes on the steering and policy committee heading into the vote -- two more than he needed -- Wilson kept telling him he had only 15. When the votes were tallied, Andrews got 15.
"Not only did Charlie know who my votes were, he knew who was lying to me," says Andrews. "That's when I learned how to count."
Reporters covering Congress -- who flock to Wilson because he's quotable and doesn't believe in spin -- found him the best barometer of the House's mood during last year's protracted fight over the ethics investigation that led to the resignation of Speaker Jim Wright.
A fierce defender of his Texas colleague -- "Just point us in the direction of the fight," he said at one point in the battle -- Wilson never sugarcoated the bad news. When a Wright counteroffensive in April of 1989 led many Democrats to think the worst was over, Wilson knew otherwise. "We haven't hit bottom yet," he said publicly.
Wilson fought alongside Wright partly out of home-state fealty and partly because he knows what it is like to be caught in the full glare of an ethics case. In 1983, Wilson was a target of a Justice Department probe into congressional drug use, including allegations he had used cocaine. Wilson, who was never charged, flatly denied allegations he said originated with a disgruntled former business partner.
The experience left Wilson with a tendency to side with the accused in such situations. Of D.C. Mayor Marion Barry's legal difficulties, Wilson has this observation: "It seems like they could have caught him fair and square. I'm a little sensitive when they use chicks for bait."
"This is not the end of this story, colonel." -- Wilson, when his girlfriend wasdenied use of a DIA plane in Pakistan
If there are people in Washington who doubt Wilson's ability to push the right levers in Congress, they don't work at the Defense Intelligence Agency. Because of Wilson, the DIA air fleet has been short two airplanes since late 1987.
This too is a story revolving around a woman and a war. The woman is Annelise Ilschenko, a former Miss World-USA whom Wilson came close to marrying last year, and whom he took along to Pakistan in 1986. (A year earlier, Wilson had had to reimburse the Navy for her air fare when he took Ilschenko to Florida and an overnight stay on an aircraft carrier.)
Informed by an Army colonel attached to the U.S. Embassy that Ilschenko could not accompany him aboard a DIA plane from Peshawar back to Karachi, even if Wilson paid her fare, the Lufkin Democrat flew into what Houston Post reporter Kathy Kiely, who was along on the trip, described as a "Texas-sized rage."
The president of Pakistan, who Wilson says "understood the appropriations process considerably better than the colonel did," provided his personal plane for Wilson and Ilschenko.
The next year, from his seat on appropriations, Wilson inserted into a catchall spending measure a provision transferring two DIA planes to the Army and Air Force National Guard. They are flying guardsmen to this day.
"I just love stickin' it to the Russians." -- Wilson, during a "60 Minutes" interview
It is July Fourth, and Charlie Wilson is doing one of the things he does best, wrapping himself in his beloved flag. On a sweltering morning, he and about 200 residents of the small town of Dayton, Tex., are crowded into St. Joseph's Catholic Church to honor the Ripkowski family, which sent all 12 of its sons to serve in the armed forces, many into combat in World War II.
Though Wilson will joke later that the reason all those Ripkowski boys were so eager to serve their country was because it beat the hell out of picking cotton on their daddy's farm, he is dead-set serious as he presents American flags to what he calls "America's foremost fighting family."
This is the kind of event that gets Wilson's patriotic hormones flowing. Lots of red, white and blue, plenty of martial music and the kind of crowd that sings along when the "The Marine Hymn" is played.
"We in East Texas didn't go to Canada during Vietnam, and we don't burn the flag in Dayton," Wilson says to loud applause.
But there is also a kinder, gentler Wilson on display here today, reflecting a suddenly changed world in which evil empire rhetoric is a little outmoded -- even in East Texas. So Wilson is testing a new theme he will use in his reelection campaign this fall.
America's values have triumphed around the world, Wilson tells his audience. Communism has collapsed because people like his constituents in Dayton were "willing to pay the price" of a strong defense. In closing, he reads, with fervor and to great effect, a patriotic poem titled "I Am the Nation."
No one is more pleased with Wilson's performance than the head of a film crew from Silver Lake Communications of Houston, which is here getting footage for Wilson's ninth reelection campaign.
From all indications, Wilson is set to unleash on the electorate another in a long line of saber-rattling campaign ads that have become cult classics.
Most everyone's favorite is the flag spot Wilson ran in 1984, when he faced the only tough reelection fight of his career in the wake of his cocaine investigation.
That commercial opens with footage of an enormous U.S. flag and a flyover of U.S. Navy jets. Wilson himself speaks all the lines, first from the San Jacinto battlefield where Sam Houston in 1836 won the decisive battle of the Texas revolution, and then from the deck of the battleship Texas:
"That's my old outfit," begins Wilson, "the U.S. Naval Academy, where I learned to love the flag and to defend it. Sam Houston taught Santa Anna a little bit about Texas defiance right here on this hallowed battlefield of San Jacinto, with his ragtag army of East Texans. This old girl is the battleship Texas -- she fired the first salvo at Omaha Beach. She also took the first German hit before Lieutenant Colonel Earl Rudder's Rangers silenced the Nazi batteries. There were more World War II officers from Texas A&M than from West Point. And the Texas 36th Infantry was the most decorated division of the war. East Texans love America and we'll defend it. The sun will someday set on you and on me. But with military strength and God's help, it will never set on the flag, the flag, the flag."
"That," says Wilson after showing a visitor the commercial, "is what you call a flag-waving spot."
Two years later, Wilson returned to that theme with a spot that began with a shot of the bow of a canoe coming ashore from a murky, brown river. The camera shows a long, lanky leg with a cowboy boot on the end stepping ashore. Panning upward, it reveals Wilson, holding an AK-47.
"This is a Russian Kalashnikov assault rifle," says Wilson in the ad. "It's the instrument of communist terrorism worldwide -- in Rome, in London, in Lebanon and in Afghanistan. Everywhere except here, because we're big and we're strong. With continued adequate military strength and eternal vigilance and God's help, we'll never see a Kalashnikov on the banks of the Neches."
With that, the ad cuts to slow motion, as Wilson tosses the AK-47 end-over-end into the Neches River.
"He gets the job done. There's a lot of 'em up there in Congress who aren't flamboyant and they don't do anything." -- Jay McMahon, chairman of thePolk County Democratic Party
Molly Locke, the matronly director of the senior citizens center in Corrigan, Tex., is going on and on about the wonderful things Wilson does for his East Texas constituents when she is asked how her congressman's social reputation plays in a Bible Belt district where some counties are still dry.
"We're tickled to death," says Locke without missing a beat. "We hope he's happy in his private life."
Voters around Lufkin and Nacogdoches seem to have come to terms long ago with Wilson and his ribald lifestyle. In part that is because Wilson and his staff -- many of whom have been with him since early in his career -- are relentless about working the district and taking care of the casework. In part it is because Wilson doesn't try to hide his peccadilloes.
When he polled voters earlier this year, one answered the standard question soliciting positive and negative comments about Wilson this way: "He chases women and gives old people dominoes."
"I thought that one was positive," says Wilson with his trademark hearty laugh.
Wayne Sellers, the 74-year-old retired publisher of the Palestine Herald Press, says he used to worry that Wilson's flamboyance would be his political undoing, but no more.
"Apparently he's overcome it all," says Sellers. "When you eliminate all his idiosyncrasies, he's really a very good congressman."
Larry Davis, who runs a small precision machine shop in Crockett, certainly thinks so. Davis's 18-man shop is awash in subcontract work for major defense contractors such as LTV, Bell Helicopter and Texas Instruments -- all of it the result of Wilson's jawboning of the big boys who depend on his vote on Appropriations for their major weapons systems.
"He's probably doubled our business this year," says Davis.
Hard work for his constituents, support for independent oil and playing Rambo on foreign policy have solidified Wilson's hold on a district that isn't always in sync with the rest of his views. Though there is a deep populist, yellow dog Democratic streak in East Texas that enabled Michael Dukakis to just carry the 2nd District in 1988, this is an area that also supported George Wallace in 1968.
Known as the "liberal from Lufkin" when he served in the state legislature from 1961 to 1973, Wilson in Congress has compiled a progressive record on economic and social issues. He favors abortion rights, was an early supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment, has backed civil rights legislation, and has fought the powerful timber interests in his district by opposing clear-cutting in the Davy Crockett National Forest and by pushing for enlargement of the 88,000-acre Big Thicket National Preserve.
He has even begun to soften on the Soviets. Declaring himself a "perestroika fan" after his visit to the Soviet Union this year, Wilson is urging support for President Mikhail Gorbachev and his reforms.
"I was impressed with the danger of chaos there and I was impressed with the depression of the people," says Wilson of his visit. Then, after a long pause, he adds: "And I was impressed with the chicks too."
"Charlie's given up more bad habits than most of us have started in a lifetime. ... He's in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest midlife crisis." -- Ann Richards
Riding in a car from Crockett to Palestine in his district, Wilson -- who is divorced -- is musing aloud about why his personal life attracts so much attention in Washington.
"It's hard for me to figure," he says. "I am single and I hope people would prefer I have girlfriends."
Longtime friends say Wilson has always been a character and a hell-raiser, though age and a heart ailment have slowed him down some.
Mitch Hart, a Dallas businessman and Naval Academy classmate, remembers Wilson bursting into his room in Annapolis late at night looking for someone to "go over the wall" with him. "I said, 'What do you have in mind?' " recalls Hart. "Nothing in particular," answered Wilson, who excelled only in getting demerits at the academy. "I just want to keep in practice."
"He's kind of a free show," adds longtime friend writer Larry L. King, author of "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas." "Charlie was probably born a social lion."
But King cautions against dismissing Wilson as one-dimensional. "More than any person I know, he'd come to your aid and help you," says King, whom Wilson visited every Sunday when the writer was being treated for alcoholism a decade ago.
"He may be the victim of an image that's outdated," says King.
Outdated or not, Wilson himself hardly goes out of his way to downplay it.
More than one dinner guest has been struck speechless by his Virginia apartment, where the bedroom has a Jacuzzi, a bed so large that one invitee swears "they played the World Cup there," a painting above the headboard of British Spitfires -- guns ablaze -- bearing down on the pillows, and, sometimes, a pair of handcuffs thrown casually over the bedpost.
"I like pretty girls," says Wilson. "And the last time I looked that wasn't a violation of any kind of ethics."
"Maybe," he says erupting in laughter again, "they should put something in the code of ethics that says at least 25 percent of your dates have to be dogs." Before long, Wilson is fantasizing about the movie that could spring from the book being written by George Crile -- who produced the "60 Minutes" feature -- about the Afghan war and Wilson's role in it.
The movie should start, says Wilson, with a scene taken from one of the reckless allegations made about him during the 1983 drug probe, the one involving him and two Las Vegas showgirls in a hot tub.
"It would be a lot better movie if I was retired," says Wilson. "Or if I moved into the witness protection program. Then it'd be one hell of a movie."