George Covington — On the Real Charlie Wilson

Circa 2008


Charlie Wilson’s War is the first movie I’ve seen in a movie theater since Raiders of the Lost Ark. I generally wait for the DVD, because what little eyesight I have left is best saved for viewing DVDs at home. But I couldn’t resist seeing how Tinseltown portrayed my old buddy.

When I was working in Vice President Dan Quayle’s office as his top advisor on accessibility and disability issues, Charlie was in Congress, where he served for about 20 years. He packed it in around 1997, when he thought the elephants (read: Republicans) were starting to stink up the place. From the very beginning, he always voted 100 percent for disability rights, women’s rights and civil rights. He also stepped forward early on to support the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Lest it sound like all his glory lie in the past, Charlie is still very much alive. He had a heart transplant a few months back, and I hate that the sonofabitch still looks the same as he did 20 years ago, while time has never played kissy face with me.

Tom Hanks did a great job playing this larger than life character. First of all Charlie is 6’4 and not one to hold his tongue. In a recent TV interview, he admitted to two flaws: his love of beautiful women and his fondness for whiskey. Still he was an effective legislator, with just the right touch for shoving a bill through the Defense Appropriations Committee.

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The thesis of the book on which the film is based, George Crile’s Charlie Wilson’s War, is that Wilson leveraged his position on that committee to redirect hundreds of millions of dollars to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, where they gradually crushed the Red Army, causing the fall of the Soviet Union.

Crile captures some particularly choice moments, e.g. the time Charlie took a belly dancer from Fort Worth, TX, to perform for the Egyptian minister of defense. Or another time when he dragged the chairman of the Defense Appropriations Committee, a real character who allegedly spat all the time and looked like a wild and crazy guy, off to meet Zia ul-Haq and the Mujahideen.

I went to his 60th birthday party some years back, where he rented the entire top floor of a restaurant. The theme was inspired by the movie Casablanca, so all 300 of us tried to dress the part. I wore my fez, but Charlie one-upped us all: He gallivanted around in a suit that a tailor had made for him, which completely recreated Humphrey Bogart’s costume from the film.

That get-up would’ve never passed muster in Charlie’s district, the 2nd Congressional in rural Texas. Growing up middle class in the town of Lufkin, he was the neighbor of someone who served on the city council. Apparently the councilman didn’t like his dog, and one day Charlie’s found his best friend coughing up blood. The man never admitted that he fed the dog hamburger with ground glass in it, but Charlie had it on good authority. He was 14 years old at the time, and on election day he drove over to a particular East Texas neighborhood, generously escorting carloads of African Americans to the polls, telling them Mister So and So, who’s running for city council, killed my dog. Then he opened the door, so they could go vote. Guess who didn’t get reelected?

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Charlie knew how to win friends and influence people. Whenever I went to a reception for veterans who were disabled, paralyzed, blind, etc., I always showed up with one of Charlie’s Angels, as his staffers were known. They were extremely beautiful, intelligent women. They went along with me to these various functions because their boss wanted to know what was going on with veterans, and they always went back with the full report.

While Hanks, as Charlie, is superb, I believe that in most instances he underplayed the flamboyance and controversy that swirled around the former Congressman. His office on Capitol Hill did not have any of the chaos portrayed in the film. His staff was regarded by one and all as not only the most lovely group of women on the Hill, but the most competent and hard-working. I took personal affront at the actress portraying Charlie’s press secretary. She came across as a political lightweight and slightly naive. In fact his press secretary, Elaine Lang, had plenty of political savvy. I was best man at her wedding and am godfather to her first child.

One day, Elaine and I stalked a beast that the movie neglected to include: Charlie’s large stray office cat. Legend has it that the cat jumped into the lap of a lobbyist one time and, realizing that the lobbyist did not like cats, did his business right there in the guy’s lap. I do know for a fact that the cat, like Charlie, loved to roam the halls of power. Frequently calls would come in from other offices that the cat was using their planter boxes as a litter box. One of Charlie’s Angels would be dispatched to retrieve the miscreant. I think if they do a sequel they should tell it from the point of the view of the cat.

Luckily, the theatre wasn’t crowded the day I saw Charlie Wilson’s War, so I could whisper to my female companion at certain points, without being shhhhshed. This nearly always involved an outrageous bit of dialogue that I actually knew to be true. Then a playboy, he’s now happily married, and did I mention that the sonofabitch looks 20 years younger than me?

by George Covington

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