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One Hell of a Ride
Good Time Charlie Wilson Is Hangin' Up His Spurs. Congress Is No Damn Fun Anymore. By Larry L. King
Comments () | Published February 1, 1996

The honorable charles nesbitt Wilson, Democrat of Texas, is giving up his seat in Congress at the end of his current term--if not before--and his compelling reason is that the job isn't fun anymore.

Friends and semi-admirers of "Good Time Charlie," a nickname he has worked late hours to earn, are not surprised. Fun has long been a top priority with Wilson; he sees little of it in Congress these days, Republicans and Democrats going after each other with partisan hatchets and personal dirks.

"The good humor is gone," Wilson says of Capitol Hill. "The camaraderie. The civility. The good human juices don't flow there anymore. There's all this goddamned rigidity and two-bit hypocrisy. So-called reforms saying we can't accept a drink or a meal from a friend or lobbyist. But either of 'em can slip us $5,000 across the table as a campaign contribution, and somehow that is OK!"

So ol' Good Times, after a dozen terms in the House and a political career dating back to 1960, is ready--in the patois of his native East Texas--to "whistle up the dawgs, piss on the fire, and go home."
Well, maybe not exactly home. Good Time Charlie long has preferred New York, Paris, and Rome to, say, Lufkin or Orange or Vidor, where the stores don't stay open as late. He is a dedicated shopper, whether for white wine or sheer little "teddies" for his long-limbed lady friends.

So don't look for him back in Texas, working at the lumberyard as in his youth, or taking up with hunting dogs in the piney woods. Expect to find him instead "consulting" right here in Washington for those who need friends in high places and have the money to pay for them. Enough money, perhaps, that ol' Good Times can continue his visits to far-way places with strange-sounding names--in the words of an old song--because life is simply more fun where the bright lights shine.

"Bottom line," Wilson says, "is that I'm now working for almost nothing. My pension will be only about $10,000 less than my congressional salary." So whistle up them dawgs . . .

"Regrets? no, not a damned one!" Wilson says at lunch in the posh Grill Room of Pentagon City's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, a glass of white wine typically in his hand and a visiting 26-year-old tanned Florida-blonde honey typically by his well-dressed, 62-year-old side. "You know that song Sinatra sings, 'I Did It My Way?' Well, that makes two of us! Yeah, sure, I made the necessary compromises to get what my people needed--or what I wanted--back when everybody wasn't so stiffly ideological. Isn't politics the art of the possible? Hell no, I wouldn't change one damn thing!"

Presumably, this means he wouldn't even change the type of personal publicity that might cause 99.9 percent of public officials to weep, pray piously loud, and beg forgiveness from their constituents, their colleagues, and the merciful Lord.

Wilson variously has reaped dark headlines for: 1) at least two spectacular midnight car crashes; 2) taking a former Miss USA--whom he has upgraded to Miss World in the telling--a) to the Afghan-Soviet war on a government airplane and in white Gucci boots and b) on an "inspection trip" aboard a naval aircraft carrier; 3) repeatedly overdrawing his House of Representatives bank account; 4) being investigated for alleged cocaine use; 5) requiring emergency hospitalization after excessive celebrations at a Paris Air Show; 6) paying a $90,000 fine for election-expenditure irregularities; 7) divorcing a wonderful and long-suffering wife; and 8) for more politically incorrect utterances than have been issued by Jesse Helms, Jesse Jackson, and maybe Jesse James combined (the most infamous perhaps being Wilson's comment on the beautiful secretaries he has employed: "You can teach 'em to type, but you can't teach 'em to grow tits").

There have been other scalawag accusations, such as getting a bit chummy with a renegade ex-CIA man now doing hard time for illegal gun-running, getting conned in an investment scam by a second felon now in stir, and losing more money as part-owner of Elan, a District nightclub that went belly-up in the 1980s after rumors that a fast-and-shady crowd made up a large part of its clientele.

Charlie's friends sometime think that perhaps he should cull his other friends with a little more care. Wilson himself says, "I tend to take people at face value, and that isn't always wise."

What amazes lesser and more craven politicians is that the people of the Second District of Texas permitted ol' Good Times to stay in Congress as long as he wanted, a tolerance Wilson recognized last October from the courthouse steps in Lufkin when announcing his retirement: "I know that at times I have been a reckless and rowdy public servant. You are the most tolerant and forgiving constituency in the world."

Long ago, I asked, "Charlie, given your down-home constituency, how in hell do you survive?" I knew from personal visits to the Second District that Wilson's constituency was made up largely of rural types, blue-collar working stiffs, ultra-conservative "bidnessmen," gun nuts, purse-mouthed Baptists, and more than a few Kluxers. Wilson answered, in effect, that he thought his Good Ol' Boys--married to jobs and wives without excessive fun in them--enjoyed seeing him "get away with things" they might have done had they been born a little luckier and that his "church folks" appreciated that he didn't lie or whine when caught. "I just say, 'Well, yeah, I guess I goofed again' and go on about my business. Those good Christians, you know, believe in the redemption of sin."

More seriously he said, "I think I survive because I take care of my folks, and they know it. Little folks. Poor folks. Ignorant or uneducated or unsophisticated folks who have no idea how to deal with the distant Washington bureaucracy. I open doors for those people, fight for 'em! Sometimes they come in with problems that should have gone to state or local authorities. I don't refer them to the proper sources, I contact those sources myself and badger 'em until they grant all possible relief. And that helps my folks forgive my other shortcomings." (One is reminded of Huey Long, the kingfish governor of Louisiana, who made certain that all checks going out to the people from any government source "had my name on the envelopes in letters large enough to smite the blind, so there wouldn't be any doubt who ol' Santa Claus was.")

It is perhaps Wilson's proudest boast that some survey outfit annually finds him at the top, or near it, in "constituent services rendered," not just in Texas but nationwide. Twice annually, Wilson has dispatched a rolling "mobile office"--a house trailer on wheels, manned by his staffers and friendly seniors who enjoy being useful once again--to every town, hamlet, and crossroads in the Second District. "Folks who need help just pour in," Wilson says, his eyes sparkling, "and by God, we go to battle for them. It ain't sexy, no, but I'm proud to leave that legacy."

Wilson's heart might be in dark bistros or distant lands, but in election years he prowls his district's back roads like a door-to-door notions salesman and looks as if he actually enjoys dancing with old ladies at senior citizens' homes, cutting ribbons for new National Guard armories, jiggling little babies on "Uncle Charlie's" knee, riding in every parade that forms up, campaigning the creek banks to shake hands with cane-pole fishers black and white, and speaking not only to stern-faced Rotarians who look as if they wouldn't pay a nickel to see an earthquake but also to whoop-and-holler gun-nut clubs. He sponsored--and attended--many domino tournaments where the contestants played with tiles containing "double blanks" emblazoned with the inspirational urging, "Vote For Charles Wilson."

Such people-coddling takes some of the sting out of his opponents' charges that Wilson is "out of touch" with his constituency, a common miscalculation among hopefuls who read those dark headlines about his periodic mischief-making and seeming falls from grace.

"Look, I out-hustle my opponents," Wilson says. "I've got to, given my hellrake's reputation! And I don't drink a damn drop until each day's work is done, no matter how much I might need a drink!" Even at party time, in election years, Wilson is likely to repair to some Good Ol' Boy beer joint to ensure that he's drinking with potential voters who themselves are not prejudiced against funning-it-up. "I don't work churches much," Wilson grins. "That might be stretching credibility."

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 02/01/1996 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles