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The War Within Charlie Wilson

Unless you’ve been lost in Antarctica, you know that Tom Hanks’ flick, Charlie Wilson’s War, is based on the wildest sumbitch ever to serve in the modern Congress and how the oddly lovable, (alleged) cocaine-snorting, womanizing, Scotch-swilling swashbuckler from Lufkin, Texas, just about single-handedly got Congress to give the Mujahdeen modern weapons that drove the Russians out of Afghanistan in 1989, thus helping bring down the Soviet empire.

But the truth is far more extraordinary—and the upshot in Afghanistan far less successful—than the 97-minute confection created by Director Mike Nichols, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) and their heavyweight cast: Hanks (who plays Wilson), Julia Roberts (a Houston socialite/Soviet hater), and Philip Seymour Hoffman (a rogue CIA field man and Wilson co-conspirator who said what brought them together was “chasing pussy and killing Communists”).

The movie’s omissions turn it into a romantic adventure sprinkled with comedy, combat, and just enough fact to be believable. But it’s worth a ticket if only to see Hoffman, who deserves his second Oscar in as many years for his portrayal of Gust Avrakotos, the CIA agent--a performance that makes Hanks scramble to remain the biggest man on the screen.

My problem, and I expected it, is that, working with a compelling true story, the movie blew an opportunity to delve into the yin and yang of good and evil inherent in both realpolitik and the mortals who inhabit it, let alone explore the tendency for seeds of failure to exist in “victory.” (After our Mujahdeen “friends” defeated the Soviet Army, many of them became Osama bin Laden’s ally and protector, the Taliban, with which the U.S. would be at war in 12 years.) Alas, paradox has never been a strong aspect of the Western mind, let alone the American mind. And Hollywood’s mind? Don’t get me started.

The real “Good Time Charlie” Wilson sat two chairs up from me on the House Defense Appropriations Committee for more than a decade. From that perch, I saw and (to an extent) helped him engineer what became the largest covert program in U.S. history—$1 billion—despite the initial timidity of the CIA and odd diffidence of the Reagan White House. And it was done entirely within the clandestine budget, with no publicly recorded vote ever taken.

I came to know and like the complex public and private Charlie Wilson, a man who was at once more disturbing and charming than either his movie incarnation or the figure described in the book that inspired the film (George Crile, Grove Press, 2003, ISBN 0802141242, 560 pp).

A long-legged, ramrod-straight Naval Academy graduate with a square jaw, wicked wit and booming basso profondo laugh, Charlie entertained elegantly in his Arlington, Virginia, condo overlooking the Iwo Jima Memorial, the Potomac River and the Capitol Mall beyond—affairs that I suspected but couldn’t prove were funded by his friends in the defense lobby.

That he had so many such friends, and carried their mail so brazenly, was one of Charlie’s many deep flaws. I recall him in committee, losing a debate on a dubious weapons system that even Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger didn’t want (and that’s saying something). Wilson held up the vote long enough to duck into the telephone booth and emerge with fresh talking points from the arms maker. I don’t remember if he won or lost; the point is that Wilson was butt-naked complicit with the defense lobby and didn’t give a damn.

Yet Charlie was a social and economic liberal who defied his Bible-thumping conservative district and its history of racial bigotry. He was a strong supporter of civil rights, minimum wage increases, Medicaid, and anti-poverty programs.

On women’s issues, Charlie was a dependable “yes” vote. He supported abortion rights, parental leave and the Equal Rights Amendment. Yet the hedonist in him collected women like a boy might collect marbles. His office staff was exclusively female, drop-dead beautiful and full bosomed. Everybody called them “Charlie’s Angels.”

In the movie, a visiting constituent glances at those aides and asks Hanks (Wilson) why he hired gorgeous women. Hanks’ reply is one I heard Charlie use in real life more than once: “You can always teach ‘em to type, but you can’t teach ‘em to grow tits.”

Aside from constituent service, stellar votes on social and economic issues, Charlie’s individual legislative efforts were unremarkable for many years. However, in the late 1970s he engaged in an act of foreign policy hubris that, seen now, foretold his Afghanistan adventure.

Ever the Annapolis man, Charlie admired the Central American dictator, Anastasio Somoza, a West Point graduate, and threatened to wreak the Carter Administration’s Panama Canal treaty if Carter didn’t resume support for Somoza. Wilson’s ardor was unaffected by the Nicaraguan leader’s unsuccessful offer of a large cash bribe at their first meeting. Later Charlie arranged a meeting between Somoza and a high-ranking CIA official in a bid to save the dictator. But when Somoza fondled Tina Simons, Wilson’s girlfriend at the time, Charlie dropped him like a dead armadillo. (Fascism was one thing; a man’s woman was another!)

I’ve always believed that Charlie’s single-minded support for the subjugated Afghans came in equal measure from a zest for danger, revulsion at Communism and empathy for a people who told him of daughters raped, children mutilated, sons and fathers decapitated, and pregnant women bayoneted in the stomach. Yet he always said they would fight the Russians with stones if necessary.

Wilson traveled frequently to the region as modern arms began to arrive and Afghans brought down Soviet helicopter warships and fixed wing aircraft with increasing skill. Inevitably, he would bring along a personal cache of booze and a beautiful woman on his arm. Sex, war, and alcohol were the trifecta in the hierarchy of Wilson’s tastes.

Charlie stormed home from one such trip with blood in his eye. A U.S. Air Force colonel had banned his female companion from flying out of Pakistan with him on a government plane. Wilson and the officer almost came to blows before Charlie placed one call to the presidential palace in Islamabad. Soon General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq’s personal jet arrived, picked up Wilson and his date and roared off, leaving the American colonel slack-jawed on the tarmac.

Charlie would get his revenge in the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. He passed an amendment (over my objection) to remove the officer’s plane. And just to make sure the colonel and his superiors got the message, Wilson’s measure reassigned the jet to the Texas Air National Guard.

In the larger sense, though, the Afghan issue brought out brilliant legislative skills few knew Charlie possessed. There’s a scene in the movie—true to fact—in which he promises Midwest congressmen, in return for their support, to deliver the Black Caucus votes for the Farm Bill, a political act as unnatural as the physical act Charlie told the Air Force colonel to perform on himself.

Wilson retired from Congress in 1996, married Barbara Alberstadt, a former ballerina, and returned to Lufkin, Texas, his boyhood home. Heunderwent a heart transplant in 2007. He died in February 2010 at the age of 77.