Charlie Wilson, the rowdy, fast-living East Texas congressman who worked to secure clandestine arms for Afghan resistance fighters in the 1980s, died of cardiac arrest Wednesday in Lufkin, Texas, three years after receiving a heart transplant. He was 76.
After complaining of physical distress, Wilson was being driven to a hospital when he was transferred to a passing ambulance, longtime friend Buddy Temple told the Lufkin Daily News. The 12-term Democratic congressman was pronounced dead at 12:16 p.m., a hospital spokeswoman said.
Wilson’s singular efforts against the Soviet occupation nearly trumped his public image as a hard-drinking, womanizing politician who had earned the nickname “Good Time Charlie.”
One of his gambits involved flying a Fort Worth belly dancer, Carol Shannon, to Cairo to win the support of Egyptian officials for a weapons transfer. He later crossed from Pakistan into Soviet-occupied Afghanistan dressed as a mujahedeen fighter. On one of his dozen trips to Pakistan, he brought along his then-girlfriend, former Miss World USA Annelise Ilschenko.
Wilson reportedly masterminded the tripling of the CIA’s budget for covert operations in Afghanistan. The agency ended up honoring the larger-than-life representative for his machinations, which were chronicled in George Crile’s book “Charlie Wilson’s War. A Tom Hanks film by the same name made the Lufkin politician a household name.
“Charlie Wilson led a life that was oversized even by Hollywood’s standards,” Gov. Rick Perry said in a statement. “Congressman Wilson was fiercely devoted to serving his country and his fellow Texans.”
Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas, called Wilson “bigger than life.”
“It was a privilege for me to know and work with him,” he said.
Although representing a slice of ultra-conservative East Texas, Wilson was never defeated by Bible Belt candidates espousing family values and piety He held a liberal stance on social issues, supporting civil rights, minimum wage increases and abortion rights while hiring a conspicuous number of female staffers before it became common. To all of this he added hawkish views on defense.
His office in Lufkin dealt effectively with constituent problems and, at election time, handed out domino sets embossed with Mr. Wilson’s name.
In the 1990 election, a Republican challenger named Donna Kay Peterson, a West Point graduate with a fundamentalist Christian platform, attacked Mr. Wilson at church gatherings for his playboy antics. Wilson told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram at the time that his District 2 constituents knew he enjoyed the company of women. They also knew he wasn’t an adulterer since he was amicably divorced.
Despite predictions of a tough contest, Mr. Wilson won easily and remained in office until leaving politics in 1996 after serving 24 years in Congress. At a retirement function in Lufkin, he apologized for his behavior.
Voters and supporters, including lumber magnate Arthur Temple, sometimes disapproved of the party animal image, but they couldn’t dislike the tall, lanky politician with the good-ol’-boy demeanor who graduated eighth from the bottom of his class at the U.S. Naval Academy.
He'd brought a VA hospital to Lufkin, and his local office knew how to untangle a retiree’s Social Security problems.
After leaving politics, Wilson worked as a lobbyist in Washington until retiring five years ago and returning to Lufkin. In 1999 he married a former ballerina, Donna Alberstadt.
The Temple family remained loyal and presented the University of Texas at Austin with a $500,000 challenge grant in 2008 to endow a professorship in Wilson’s name. And $536,000 more was raised for the proposed Charlie Wilson Chair in Pakistan Studies after Pakistani-Americans responded to the fund drive. A search for an scholar to fill the position begins in September, UT said Wednesday.
A dozen UT professors opposed the chair when it was proposed, noting Wilson’s involvement in the cold war in South Asia .
In retrospect, Wilson himself expressed mixed feelings about his role. He has been quoted as saying he felt guilty that some of the arms he helped secure might have ended up in the hands of the Taliban. He also opposed the Iraq invasion, saying it diverted U.S. attention from the real fight in Afghanistan .
Funeral arrangements have not been finalized.