HOUSTON (Reuters) – Former , the swashbuckling Texan chronicled in film for helping secure billions of dollars to fund covert U.S. operations against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, died on Wednesday of cardiac arrest. He was 76.
Charlie Wilson, lawmaker of movie fame, dies at 76
Wilson, a Democrat, served 12 consecutive terms in the House of Representatives, and was known as the "Liberal from Lufkin," the town in mostly conservative east Texas where he lived.
He had complained of chest pains on Wednesday and was pronounced dead when he arrived at Memorial Health System of East Texas in Lufkin, the hospital said in a statement.
In the 2007 movie " ," actor Tom Hanks portrayed Wilson as a boozy womanizer who found his life's cause in helping mujahideen in Afghanistan fight and eventually repel occupying Soviet forces.
As a long-time member of the House Appropriations Committee, Wilson quietly helped steer billions of dollars to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, which distributed the funds to buy Afghan fighters high-tech weapons like Stinger missiles used to shoot down Soviet helicopter gunships.
"I just saw the opportunity to grab the sons o'bitches by the throat," the fiercely anti-communist Wilson told The Dallas Morning News in a 2007 interview.
, who was at the CIA during the covert campaign, said Wilson's life showed how "one brave and determined person can alter the course of history."
"His efforts and exploits helped repel an invader, liberate a people, and bring the Cold War to a close," Gates said.
After the Soviet withdrawal, Wilson expressed reservations about U.S. lawmakers' decisions to cut funds to Afghanistan, blamed for creating a void that led to the rising influence of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, the Islamic militant group accused of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks.
"Charlie kept fighting for the Afghan people and warned against abandoning that traumatized country to its fate -- a warning we should have heeded then, and should remember today," Gates said.
On a less flattering side, the movie opens with Wilson in a hot tub in a Las Vegas hotel, flanked by two strippers who are high on cocaine. The U.S. Justice Department in 1980 investigated Wilson for possible drug use, but the probe came up empty.
"The feds spent a million bucks trying to figure out whether, when those fingernails passed under my nose, did I inhale or exhale, and I ain't telling," Wilson told author George Crile, who included the material in his book, Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest in History.
Wilson was known for hiring attractive young women to staff his congressional office in Washington, where they were known as "Charlie's Angels" after the then-popular TV show.
While known as a defense hawk, Wilson had a liberal voting record on social issues, despite his district's conservative leanings.
Wilson was born in Trinity, Texas, in 1933, attended the U.S. Naval Academy, and served in the U.S. Navy.
He was elected to the Texas legislature and went on to serve in the U.S. House from 1973 to 1997. He is survived by his wife Barbara and sister Sharon Allison.
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington, editing by Vicki Allen)
From Dan Rather in Haiti:
"It is the rare congressman who by dint of personality, persistence and country smarts did something that literally altered history on the global stage. What Charlie Wilson did in Afghanistan changed the course of world events.
Charlie Wilson was all Texan and all American. He dreamed big, lived large. He was a member of the pantheon of Texas heroes from Sam Houston to Jim Bowie."
When I sent word to Ms. Herring I wanted to interview her, she sent me this simple message:
Ok honey call me now I am to do dr debakeys eulogy and am terrifiedA woman of grace and candor, Joanne Herring is a reporter's dream.
Texan on the Potomac: Joanne King Herring
Past life: She did extensive lobbying work with her husband (she's had three) in Washington and became the "it" girl for party planning. She hosted KHOU "News at Noon with Joanne King" and hosted the "Joanne King Show." The first Houston female to receive national recognition as a successful TV personality, her show ranked sixth in national daytime programming.
Politically, Herring was known for her staunch opposition to communism and her close ties to the Middle East and Afghanistan.
After her first husband died, she hooked up with Texas congressman Charlie Wilson (literally) and together they waged a covert war on Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, sending weapons and other aid to Afghan rebels. Wilson proposed and Herring declined. Herring told me "we were more in love with the war than with each other...you know what I mean, honey." Yes, I know. But did Charlie?
According to The Daily News last year, Ms. Herring and Congressman Wilson--and a band of high-powered attorneys--quashed any suggestion in the movie that their little war was somehow responsible for 9/11. Ms. Herring's response? "The important thing for people to realize: Who did we go to fight? Russia. Did we beat them? Yes. You cannot predict future wars; if you could, we wouldn't have them."
Ms. Herring is a woman who gets what she wants. Not only did she help convince Mr. Wilson to give weapons to Afghans to fight the Soviets, she got through to Hollywood and they edited every four-letter word that came out of Julia Roberts' mouth.
Her take on Charlie Wilson's War: Herring hired a top Texas lawyer, Dick DeGuerin of Houston, to prevail upon the film's director, Mike Nichols, to make Julia Roberts more wholesome. "He agreed to cut out all the swearing from me as long as I went along with the rest of it...They wanted hanky-panky and so that's what they got. Anyone who knows me will realize that I don't behave like that."
The film was "pretty accurate but I never got up in the middle of a party and jumped in a bathtub with someone," she clarifies. What's more, "Republicans were more involved than what they were given credit for...And I did more than Julia was given credit for."
Her parties: The parties she threw in Washington were so big she was asked to extend her skills to Houston, entertaining heads of state when they visited the U.S. She explained to me, saying "Houston was the middle city," but we know that she was asked to do them not because of Houston's geographic location, but because Herring was the hostess with the mostest. She once built the 29-year-old King of Sweden a disco.
She thought, "I have four boys. We will use it over and over." So Herring kicked one of her sons out of his bedroom and built a disco room in her Houston mansion. (The house was later bought by Ken Lay of ENRON, who got rid of the disco. Party pooper.) And Ms. Herring used the disco room to throw parties for the Shah of Iran, the King of Morocco and her sons' fraternity parties. What a cool mom.
For King Hussein of Jordan, she put together a special gust list. "He brought all men, so I invited the most beautiful women I knew." She insists she "did it in a fun way" and they all came because of King Hussein's entourage. Of course. And when talk arose that Herring was playing matchmaker at the party, she called it a "scream" and laughed at the thought of these "princesses" (name-drop: a Vanderbilt) going home with King Hussein or his men.
Why she left public life: She never really has...
Best known for: A film about her exploits, Charlie Wilson's War, her character portrayed by Julia Roberts. Raising big money, being an expert of Middle Eastern affairs and for her reputation as a fabulous Houston socialite and fashionista--with substance.
Where she is now: Still fighting for Afghanistan and raising money all around the country. "I am working with Ms. Caroline Firestone and Ms. Laura Bush to start a college for Afghan women." Last month she spoke at a $1,000-a-head dinner at Bobo in New York City hosted by the Rebuilding Afghanistan Foundation. Herring also funds a group of 100 single mothers in five counties in Texas. When we spoke she was penning the late Dr. Michael DeBakey's eulogy. DeBakey was a dear friend of Herring's. (She invited him to many of her parties throughout the years.) Herring said she was "astonished to find out he had chosen me to do his eulogy--out of all these distinguished people." When I suggested it was probably her humor that reminded DeBakey of Herring, she replied, "You have to laugh. Because you might cry...a lot."
Fun facts and quotes: Oscar de la Renta is one of her favorite designers and she likes to shop at Neiman Marcus. She drives a red Jaguar convertible and her two black poodles wear bandanas. "I was driving in traffic and someone gave me the finger. I smiled and blew him a kiss." "People think it's Joanne, the social queen. That's not me at all. I get bored to death when people talk about nothing."
Click here for a Chron article about Herring at Charlie Wilson's L.A. premiere.
Posted by Mackenzie Warren at July 16, 2008