By John Aloysius Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
One of America's favorite politicians died this week. Charlie Wilson's rough-riding lifestyle finally caught up with him. Booze and blondes can wear on a man. We have the consolation of knowing that, whatever price he ultimately paid for his decades of partying, "Good Time Charlie" deserved his nickname.
Long before they wrote a book about Charlie, and Tom Hanks portrayed him in the movie Charlie Wilson's War, the gentleman from Texas was a legend on Capitol Hill. He didn't single-handedly defeat the Russkies in Afghanistan, but from what I know about his role raising funds for the Afghan resistance, Hollywood didn't stray too far from the actual script.
Charlie loved a good yarn, and in writing a biography of Tip O'Neill, I came across a couple of lovely stories. They're not quite as good in the cleaned-up version, but you can supply the necessary profanities.
The first involves Charlie's membership on the House Ethics Committee. Tip had a forgiving approach to the transgressions of his fellow politicians, and detested reformers who made names for themselves by dragging colleagues down.
"Nobody who ever wants to serve on the Ethics Committee should ever be appointed," Tip told then-Majority Leader Jim Wright. "They should be drafted."
Charlie was sitting with Mo Udall when Tip announced the Ethics appointees one year, and murmured, "My God, Mo! This is horrible. Tip didn't put one damn member on there who appreciates good [sex] or whiskey!"
Udall's laugh caught O'Neill's attention, and soon Tip was chortling too. A seed was planted for, a few months later, Charlie was summoned to the speaker's office. "I was scared to death," Wilson recalled, "trying to figure what I had done lately to embarrass the House of Representatives."
"Chollie, Mo Udall told me what you said about the makeup of the Ethics Committee," said Tip. "I agree. So I'm going to name you."
"They'd laugh us both out of town!" Wilson protested. "I'm a live-and-let-live kind of guy." But Charlie coveted an appointment to the board of trustees at the Kennedy Center for the performing arts, where he could get great seats and impress his dates.
"It's a package deal," Tip told him. And so the Texas fox was put in charge of guarding the Washington chicken coop, where he brought mercy and understanding and a certain expertise to the proceedings.
Another story comes from the early days of the Reagan Revolution. They called Ronald Reagan the "Great Communicator" for a reason, and he was particularly adept at strolling onto Tip's turf, and giving nationally televised speeches before joint sessions of Congress. In the summer of 1981, Reagan's speeches spurred his fellow Americans to pressure their members of Congress with 40,000 phone calls and telegrams a day.
The Democrats were routed and Charlie, marveling at Reagan's talents, sought to cheer up his downcast leaders. Things could get worse, he warned them.
"I sure as hell hope that sonofabitch doesn't come out against [sex]."