Former lawmaker Charlie Wilson dies at 76

Former Texas politician Charlie Wilson speaks at the Annual Dinner of the White House Correspondents' Association, Saturday, April 26, 2008, in Washington. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

February 10, 2010 4:45:13 PM PST
Charlie Wilson, the former congressman from Texas whose funding of Afghanistan's resistance to the Soviet Union was chronicled in the movie and book "Charlie Wilson's War," died Wednesday. He was 76. Wilson died at Memorial Medical Center-Lufkin after he started having difficulty breathing while attending a meeting in the eastern Texas town where he lived, said hospital spokeswoman Yana Ogletree. Wilson was pronounced dead on arrival, and the preliminary cause of death was cardiopulmonary arrest, she said.

Wilson represented the 2nd District in east Texas in the U.S. House from 1973 to 1996 and was known in Washington as "Good Time Charlie" for his reputation as a hard-drinking womanizer. He once called former congresswoman Pat Schroeder "Babycakes," and tried to take a beauty queen with him on a government trip to Afghanistan.

Actor Tom Hanks portrayed Wilson in the 2007 movie about Wilson's efforts to arm Afghan mujahedeen during Afghanistan's war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Wilson, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, helped secure money for weapons, plunging the U.S. into a risky venture against the world's other superpower.

In an interview with The Associated Press after the book was published in 2003, he said he wasn't worried about details of his wild side being portrayed.

"I would remind you that I was not married at the time. I'm in a different place than I was in at the time and I don't apologize about that," Wilson said.

In 2007, Wilson had a heart transplant at a Houston hospital. Doctors had told Wilson, who suffered from cardiomyopathy, a disease that causes an enlarged and weakened heart, that he would likely die without a transplant.

Wilson, a Democrat, was considered a progressive but also a defense hawk. He had acknowledged some responsibility for Afghanistan becoming a safe haven for al-Qaida after the Soviets retreated and the U.S. withdrew its support.

"That caused an enormous amount of real bitterness in Afghanistan and it was probably the catalyst for Taliban movement," Wilson said in a 2001 interview.

The Soviets spent a decade battling the determined and generously financed mujahedeen before pulling the Red Army from Afghanistan in 1989.

Mike Vickers, who as a CIA agent in 1984 played a key role in the clandestine effort to arm the Afghan rebels, said Wilson played a part in the Soviet Union's collapse, which happened just two years after its withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Vickers, now assistant secretary of defense for special operations, praised Wilson as a "great American patriot who played a pivotal role in a world-changing event -- the defeat of the Red Army in Afghanistan, which led to the collapse of Communism and the Soviet Empire."

After leaving Congress, Wilson lobbied for a number of years before returning to Texas.

"Charlie was perfect as a congressman, perfect as a state representative, perfect as a state senator. He was a perfect reflection of the people he represented. If there was anything wrong with Charlie, I never did know what it was," said Charles Schnabel Jr., who served for seven years as Wilson's chief of staff in Washington and worked with Wilson when he served in the Texas Senate.

Schnabel said he had just been with Wilson a few weeks ago for the dedication of the Charlie Wilson chair for Pakistan studies at the University of Texas, Austin, a $1 million endowment. He said Wilson had been doing "very good."

"He had the heart transplant in September 2007 and he recovered and he said quote, 'he was a poster boy for heart transplants.' He was doing very well. He was taking a whole lot of medicine," Schnabel said.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas called Wilson "a lifetime public servant with a fiery passion for the people of east Texas, our men and women in uniform, our veterans and our freedoms."

"I have had the great privilege to work alongside him on several issues of importance to our veterans in Texas, and I will miss his leadership and dedication," he said.

Ogletree said Wilson is survived by his wife, Barbara, and a sister.

Comments on Wilson's death

"Charlie Wilson led a life that was oversized even by Hollywood's standards. Congressman Wilson was fiercely devoted to serving his country and his fellow Texans." -- Gov. Rick Perry, Texas Republican.

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"Charlie Wilson was one of a kind, loved by all who knew him, and he will be missed as one of our most distinguished and colorful leaders. he was a giant, not just in stature but in his love for America and especially America's men and women in uniform. He was a dynamic presence in Congress and on the national stage. -- U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas.

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"(Wilson) was a lifetime public servant with a fiery passion for the people of East Texas, our men and women in uniform, our veterans and our freedoms. I have had the great privilege to work alongside him on several issues of importance to our veterans in Texas, and I will miss his leadership and dedication." -- U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

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"Charlie Wilson was a bigger-than-life Texan who played a key role in bringing down the former Soviet Union, and it was a privilege for me to know and work with him." -- U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, Waco Democrat and Wilson's former House Appropriations Committee colleague and fellow advocate for military veterans.

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"Charlie was a man of courage and conviction who worked hard, loved his country and lived life to the fullest. We will miss him." -- U.S. Rep. Dave Obey, D-Wis., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

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"Charlie Wilson is proof of what one man can do when he's determined, and the world is a different place because of Charlie." -- U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, Tyler Republican who now represents the 2nd Congressional District of Texas once represented by Wilson.

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"Charlie loved this nation and had deep respect and gratitude for the men and women who defended her. He was a force for veterans his entire career. The VA is a richer organization because of Mr. Wilson." -- Dr. Anthony Zollo, director of Charles Wilson VA Outpatient Clinic in Lufkin.

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"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." -- Dan Rather, television journalist.

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