Texan inspired ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’

  • Wed Feb 10th, 2010 10:25pm
  • News

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

FORT WORTH, Texas — 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, Mr. 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. CST, a hospital spokeswoman said.

Mr. 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.

Mr. 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.” It inspired the Tom Hanks film, which made the politician a household name.

“Charlie Wilson led a life that was oversized even by Hollywood’s standards,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry said. “Congressman Wilson was fiercely devoted to serving his country and his fellow Texans.”

Although representing a slice of ultra-conservative East Texas, Mr. 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.

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 the Wall Street Journal predicting a tough contest, Mr. Wilson easily won that race and remained in office until leaving politics in 1996 after serving 24 years in Congress. At a retirement function, he made a public apology for his behavior, the Lufkin Daily News reported.