Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Good Time Charlie Took Care of the Home Folks

First time I met Charlie Wilson was in 1978, inside the motor coach that served as his portable campaign office. I was a photographer for the Nacogdoches paper. He was running for re-election to Congress, something he did every two years from the time he was sent there in 1972 until he retired in 1996. Despite his well-earned reputation for drinking, partying, squiring around beautiful women and saying outrageous things, “Good Time Charlie” was handily re-elected every time by the voters of his district in Deep East Texas.

I covered Charlie’s return trips home for most of the next two decades, for newspapers in Nacogdoches, San Augustine and Lufkin. There is a photo of Charlie and then vice-president Walter Mondale propped on the credenza behind my desk. I shot it later that year at the Angelina County Airport, when Mondale came to town for a fund-raiser for Wilson. Mondale is speaking to the media, while a thin, tall and undeniably handsome Wilson beams in the background. I dug the photo out of storage a few years ago when the movie “Charlie Wilson’s War” made the by-then retired congressman a semi-household name, at least for a time.

The fine book by the late George Crile, and the 2007 movie starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, both chronicle Wilson’s single-handed effort to covertly arm the Afghan freedom fighters in their guerilla war against the Soviets in the early 1980s. Both the book and movie are well worth the time investment, if you haven’t done so already.

In the fall of 1990, I had just gone over to the Sentinel in Nacogdoches as managing editor to work for Glenn McCutchen — who retired as publisher here in Longview two years ago. I’ve been following Glenn around for nearly two decades now. I reckon I will follow him out the door here one of these days. Anyway, Charlie was facing what looked to be a fairly strong challenge from Donna Peterson, an attractive young woman from Orange, who had a military background and was taking advantage of the slow shift of voter preference from Democratic to Republican. She was just six or eight years ahead of her time, as it turned out.

Glenn and I decided to sponsor a debate between Wilson and Peterson at the Fredonia Hotel in Nacogdoches. To our surprise, a standing-room crowd showed up. For a time, I wasn’t sure Charlie was going to show. I was the moderator and getting nervous.

Peterson was at the podium armed with sheaths of notes, since we had provided the questions in advance. A minute or two after the appointed hour, as I peered down the corridors of the Fredonia searching for a very tall congressman, here came Charlie — sucking on his asthma inhaler and cussing a blue streak because he didn’t want to be there. Charlie had no notes and almost certainly hadn’t bothered to read the questions. But he blew Peterson out of the water with his knowledge of the issues and handling of the crowd. Charlie easily won re-election that year and beat her twice more before retiring.

Charlie truly was a larger-than-life character with a booming voice, a quick mind and an amazing memory. He would saunter into the Lufkin newsroom on a trip back from Washington, prop his feet up on a reporter’s desk, polished cowboy boots gleaming under the fluorescent lights, and talk about how he had won funding for a VA clinic for Lufkin or helped an elderly couple in Trinity County with a Social Security problem, or gotten funding for a transit system in Nacogdoches. That’s why the home folks kept sending Charlie back to Congress, until he decided it wasn’t fun anymore.
He truly did take care of the home folks, as he put it, with a superb staff trained to take care of his constituents.

Last time I saw Charlie was at the book signing in late 2003 for “Charlie Wilson’s War,” held at the Diboll History Center. The home folks came out by the droves for that event. They still loved Charlie, who signed the book along with Crile, the fellow who actually wrote it.

I waited in line until my time came and said, “Hi, Charlie,” reminded him I was the fellow running his hometown paper then in Lufkin, where he had returned after making some money lobbying after his congressional career. He needed to; Charlie never cared much about money when in Congress. He smiled, thought for a second, and wrote: “For Gary Borders, a celebrated member of the ‘liberal media.’ Charlie Wilson.” It is one of my prized possessions.

Charlie had more than his share of warts, but he was a patriot and knew how to get things done in Washington. Personally, I wish he were still there. Besides, he gave us newspaper types plenty to write about. God rest his soul.
Originally published February 14, 2010

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