Alex Massie

Charlie Wilson’s War is Over

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Charlie Wilson in Afghanistan.

I guess the movie they made of Charlie Wilson's War is now more famous than George Crile's book. That's a shame because the movie, while entertaining, ain't half as revelatory as the book which is more than just a political thriller explaining how - with only some exagerration - a lone Congressman funded and armed the mujahedeen in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. It's a terrific piece of work and an excellent, if extreme in the particulars, introduction to the way the United States Congress actually works. Or worked back then, anyway, in the age of Tip O'Neil when Congress was more powerful, or perhaps simply insisted upon its prerogatives more keenly than it does now.

Well there aren't too many Congresspeeps like Charlie Wilson these days. He was just a touch more colourful than your average Congressman:

Divorce, dope, drunk driving: As the 1984 election approached, the experts figured the voters of East Texas might decide to replace Wilson with someone a bit less, um, colorful.

But the experts were wrong, as they often are, and the God-fearing people of East Texas reelected Wilson in 1984 -- and five times after that.

 

"He was their Charlie," says Tindal, "and whatever he did, they'd say, 'Well, that's our Charlie.' "

In a 1988 interview, Wilson explained his victories in his own inimitable style: "You have to bring home the bacon, convince 'em you don't want to take no [bleep] off them Russkies, and you can't think of anything more obscene than gun control."

Of course, there was more to Wilson's popularity than that. Joe Christie, who served in the Texas legislature with Wilson, remembers the lawmaker's "mobile office" -- a trailer that traveled his district to help people with problems with Social Security checks or veterans benefits. And, says Christie, "He's an incredible campaigner."

"One time," says Schroeder, laughing, "he didn't hand out literature, he handed out gun rags -- rags for cleaning your gun -- with his name on them. . . . And his ads were hysterical. His ads were like: 'I eat raw meat for breakfast and then I tie the tail of a bobcat and then I fight commies.' "

His AK-47 ad became legendary. "He's standing in a boat in the Trinity River in East Texas," says Tindal, "and he has this AK-47, and he says something like, 'We're never gonna have these on the banks of the Trinity River.' And then he throws it in the river. We figured everybody would be swimming around the river looking for it, so we fished it out."

Wilson projected a cartoonish macho image but, says Schroeder, "it's all a big Texas act." Actually, he was smart, well-read and an extremely effective legislator. "He was very skilled," she says, "at pushing the right buttons on the Appropriations Committee."

"He was one of the best at maneuvering in committee," says Dicks, who served on the Appropriations Committee with Wilson.

Wilson used that skill -- pure political horse-trading -- to win ever-increasing funding for the Afghan rebels, which is, of course, the subject of "Charlie Wilson's War."

Well, we know now how that turned out, though Wilson was one of the few voices in Washington arguing that the US shouldn't abandon and forget about Afghanistan. And we know how that turned out too. Anyway, Crile's book is terrific and does, I think, justice to an extraordinary character and an extraordinary story.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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