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From the start, it was Good Time Charlie

My favorite memory of the late Charles Nesbitt Wilson — U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson of Charlie Wilson's War fame — was in the early 1970s, when I was working as a reporter for a small daily newspaper in Conroe, Texas.

His 2nd Congressional District included Conroe back then (we were later put into the 6th Congressional District of then-Democrat Phil Gramm, who later became a Republican and then a U.S. senator).

Charlie (as everyone called him) was making a campaign swing through his district and had parked his traveling office, a good-sized motor home, in our newspaper parking lot. We all went outdoors to see what was going on.

Moments later, the motor home door swung open and Charlie climbed off the bus, combing his hair and grinning like a Cheshire cat. He was tall and seemed to have legs up to his armpits. Behind him came a string of lovely, long-legged, well-endowed young women, each with thick blond hair, who were known as "Charlie's Angels."

The sports guys who had joined us in the parking lot rolled their eyes and whispered Charlie's (perhaps apocryphal) words about why he seemed partial to tall blond secretaries: "You can teach 'em to type, but you can't teach 'em to grow t----."

Even so, Charlie famously refused to mess around with staff, which he described as "fishing off his own pier" in mixed company and more colorful language with the fellows. But he knew that they attracted a crowd that would include potential voters, and added to his Good Time Charlie aura, in which he reveled.

I felt a special affinity to the congressman having nothing to do with his good looks. Just before he started building his political career, my family had lived in Lufkin, his home base and where he now lies in state, and my late father had spent the 1940s and 1950s helping to build the Liberal — with a capital "L" — Democratic base in that area that helped send such liberals as U.S. Rep. Jack Brooks and U.S. Sen. Ralph Yarborough to Washington.

A measure of our devotion: Our treasured 1950 seafoam green Ford sedan had big squares of paint peeled off the sides where we had put Brooks and Yarborough signs on it with masking tape.

Our family moved to Louisiana in 1957, but it was the liberal base we left behind that sent Charlie to Austin in 1961 at age 27 as the state representative, then state senator and finally, in 1973, to Washington, where he stayed until 1996, when he retired.

I was back in Texas by the time Charlie was elected to Congress, and my newspaper sent me to D.C. to shadow him and do a profile for our newspaper chain. I followed him everywhere and visited with him and his wife in their townhouse a couple of blocks from his office.

You'll notice I don't use her name, mainly because I cannot find it anywhere on the Internet, in books, on TV or in the movies, and I suspect he and she had some kind of agreement that she would never be mentioned after their parting, as his Charmin' Charlie the playboy reputation was built while he was married to her. (Or at least he said he was.)

Even so, Charlie had a tender heart and fought for some good liberal causes, especially while he was in Austin: Medicaid, tax exemptions for the elderly, the Equal Rights Amendment (I don't care what anyone says, Charlie was not misogynist), raising the minimum wage; and he was pro-choice, not an easy stance to take in east Texas in the 1960s, or even now, for that matter.

I sort of lost touch with Charlie after redistricting, but I kept up enough to know that he made some choices with which I strongly disagreed, mainly his support of the right-wing Anatasio Somoza government in Nicaragua.

I'm happy to say he finally broke with Somoza, not because of a political epiphany, but because Somoza made the mistake of making a pass at Charlie's then-girlfriend, right there in front of him. The boy did have his priorities straight.

I have the book Charlie Wilson's War on my coffee table, but I can't seem to get past the first chapter, which covers a time I can remember in detail and gets me all teary-eyed when I read it.

I missed the 2007 movie, too; Tom Hanks is nice-looking and all, but he's not good-looking enough to play Charlie. The only actor I can think of who could have done him justice is Gregory Peck — the deep voice, the long legs, the rugged handsomeness (think Duel in the Sun, Moby Dick or To Kill a Mockingbird), the piercing eyes, his progressive politics (Peck, a lifelong Democrat, was on Richard Nixon's notorious enemies list), his obvious kindness. But Peck died in 2003, too late and, yes, too old, to play Charlie.

Charlie went back to Lufkin after he retired, where opinion is still sharply divided about him.

There's a service for him there on Sunday, but, as a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a Navy veteran, he'll be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, near the city where he seemed so at home.

From the start, it was Good Time Charlie 02/12/10 [Last modified: Friday, February 12, 2010 8:36pm]
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