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."
Three elections ago a female graduate of West Point–a perfect counterpoint to the male Naval Academy graduate that Wilson is–ran against him. "She wasn't bad looking," Wilson says, "so I asked her out to dinner." When the lady refused, Wilson began privately hinting that maybe she lacked the proper hormones; when she ran a second time, remaining oblivious to Wilson's charms, he challenged her to make public her West Point records against his Naval Academy records; that the lady refused caused perhaps unfair speculation as to why, which Wilson did nothing to discourage. Understandably frustrated, the lady in her third race against ol' Good Times publicly castrated a young calf while hinting that that was exactly what Wilson needed. Ol' Good Times called me once that flamboyant event had made the papers and television, chortling, "I got 'er now! My folks don't believe that public nut-cutting is very ladylike." And, of course, that poor, angry woman was totally swamped on election day.
No big "wilson bill" ever passed Congress. And despite almost a quarter-century in the House, Wilson never rose to leadership–or aspired to.
"Why in hell would a man want to be tied down attending a bunch of dull-ass meetings and working overtime just to reap a few headlines, pop off on television, or get a few extra lines in his obituary, when he could be out enjoying life?"
Such questions sometimes cause Wilson's more ambitious colleagues to look on him as a freak and brand him an abnormal political animal. They know that Wilson is adept at counting votes, mastering in-house strategies and tactics, persuading small groups of colleagues, and generally knowing which bruises to mash or which strings to pull. And it disorders their conventional minds that Wilson permits such talents to go to waste! I once said in vexation, "Charlie, dammit, you've got many of the talents the young LBJ had, so why in hell don't you use them?" Ol' Good Times said, simply, that LBJ wanted one thing from life and Charlie Wilson wanted another, and how about us ordering a nightcap before we approached those two lonesome ladies over there in that booth, and didn't I think that mine was a tad fat?
Not that Wilson did nothing but help poor pensioners or sick, old veterans. His legacy includes long, firm, and aggressive support of Israel, despite not having enough Jews in his district to dance a decent hora.
The suspicious might presume that Wilson beat Israeli drums so as to reap huge campaign contributions from American Jews. But an admirable quirk in Wilson's makeup is his reluctance to solicit campaign money; rarely has he run a campaign that wasn't underfunded by modern standards; certainly he never built up the huge war chests that many congressmen–before the rules were changed–were permitted to take with them as personal funds when they retired, making more than one instant millionaire. Wilson's recent run-in with election laws was not because of greed but mixing his campaign funds and personal funds due to shoddy bookkeeping. "Not a lot of money was involved," Wilson says, "but to the extent that I erred, it was my fault." He paid the $90,000 fine rather than appeal it because, technically, one of Wilson's staffers was his campaign-fund manager and could have gotten in trouble, "although she didn't do one damn thing but follow my loose instructions."
"I supported Israel because Israel has been historically friendly to the United States, and because many of our enemies would have loved nothing better than seeing the Jewish state fail," Wilson says.
Wilson almost single-handedly armed the Afghans well enough that the invading Soviets ultimately were forced to quit the field, after long and ineffectual warrings, as ignominiously as the United States had had to quit Vietnam; he became such a thorn in Soviet sides that their political apparatus, not long before the Berlin wall came down, invited him to Moscow to attempt to persuade him–with banquets, booze, and beauties–that he had misunderstood their good and tender human hearts. Everyone–friends, staffers, many government sources–begged ol' Good Times not to go; I personally feared that after a certain quantity of vodka and body rubs he might sign over Texas to the Russians or get photographed in bed with a bear.
"Hell, they never had a shot at persuading me," Wilson now says of the Russians. "But I sure did enjoy their hospitalities!" Wilson met a young Russian beauty with whom he fell deeply, if temporarily, in love or thereabouts. Great was official consternation when ol' Good Times brought the shapely Soviet creature home with him! Again, everyone–CIA, State, congressmen, the White House, old friends–rent their garments and shouted warnings that the Russian beauty just had to be a KGB agent intent on catching Wilson in a honey trap. Someone from the Goddamned Press, spotting the congressman holding hands with the Soviet lovely in a posh Washington restaurant, asked if she might be attempting to learn America's best secrets during "ah-um-er . . . pillow talk?" Charlie grinned and said, "The only secrets this little lady's gonna take back to Russia will come from Victoria's." Sure enough, the KGB agentess–if, indeed, she was that–departed with a suitcase full of sheer underthings; if she learned any state secrets, they likely came from Aldrich Ames.
Not all of wilson's international intrigues were based on forbidden kisses. President Zia of Pakistan gives him total credit for the Soviets' slinking away from their Afghan misadventure; former CIA director James Woolsey credits Wilson and Poland's Lech Walesa (whose Solidarity movement among Polish workers was the first visible crack in the Iron Curtain) with causing the collapse of the Soviet Union. That is no small thing for ol' Good Times to have on his résumé or to contemplate in his twilight years.
They still love ol' Good Times in Afghanistan, having named a big gun for him–"The Charliehorse"–and once telling a 60 Minutes television crew that they may one day raise large monuments to Wilson in stone or bronze. How, and why, did an East Texas congressman become the patron saint of Afghanistan?
"They were fighting Russian tanks and missiles with rocks and knives," Wilson says. "I figured any bunch that damned determined to preserve their freedoms deserved a more level playing field." Wilson used his seat on the House military appropriations subcommittee to wheedle, bludgeon, and trade for Afghan arms. "Hell yes, I traded my vote for anything in exchange for votes to arm those poor devils. And those arms made the difference! Once the Afghans got 'em, they began knocking Soviet aircraft out of the sky, and the goddamned Russians had to take a new look at their hole card."
Wilson called public attention to the plight of the underdogs–and, not so incidentally, to himself–by being photographed on horseback with Afghan "Freedom Fighters," he wearing a fur hat and bandolieras of live ammunition, and by such inflammatory sound-bite declarations as "I want to assist in the killing of as many Russians as I can, as painfully as possible." He hinted that he may have personally machine-gunned a few Godless Communists himself, which no doubt played well back in the Second District with gun nuts and reflex "patriots," even though it drove State Department sissy-britches and Wilson's less bloodthirsty friends up the wall.
Not believing that ol' Good Times would kill a sick cat without torment–after once witnessing him, in tears, when he did have to put down an aged and well-loved old cat–I telephoned the congressman's long-suffering press secretary, Elaine Lang, to say, "My God, can't you put a muzzle on Charlie's macho bullshit?"
Miss Lang half-laughed, half-sighed, and said: "Hey! You know Charlie!"
Let it be confessed that i have known Charlie Wilson for 36 years; despite wishing occasionally to strangle him, I wish him nothing but bluebirds and wet kisses from blondes, brunettes, and redheads alike, Charlie sometimes being easier to love than to defend.
This is not to say that I have not sometimes berated him like a Dutch Uncle: for his unabashed love of war; for his misplaced faith in such sorry despots as Somoza of Nicaragua and the former shah of Iran; for going to bed with the gun nuts. He, in turn, has accused me of being a "starry-eyed Communist lover," an impractical and coddled "Limousine Liberal," and a "Texas Turncoat"–the latter charge stemming from my affinity for the Redskins over his beloved Cowboys. Somehow, neither of us ever has managed to stay mad past the cocktail hour.
We never have hesitated to meddle in each other's personal lives. When ol' Good Times learned I was about to get married–just as my musical comedy The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas showed signs of becoming an international hit–Wilson bluntly said, "You are as dumb as a Texas Aggie! You do everything bass-ackwards!"
Wilson said, "You've never before been in the big money or run with a lot of first-class women. And now that you could hell around with impunity, with just about anybody you want, you choose to get married!" He spoke with such passion you might have thought I had smitten one of his favorite dictators with a big stick.
My then bride-to-be, Barbara S. Blaine, a lawyer normally as tough as a six-bit steak and as unforgiving as the Old Testament God looking down on excessive sport in Sodom and Gomorrah, actually laughed on hearing Wilson's comment. Anybody else she would have choked, slowly and smiling.
Charlie casts this, I dunno, goddamned spell over women, and not just the airheads sometimes found on his arm. Columnist Molly Ivins–funny, bright, tough, iconoclastic, a Capital-L Liberal–once wrote 2,000 words in Ms. magazine trying to explain why she and other strong women liked ol' Good Times despite his sexist utterances, tomcat conduct, war whoops, and gun-loving. Molly said, in effect, well, er-ah, Wilson has been pro-civil rights and pro-women in his votes, is surprisingly liberal on most domestic legislation, and doesn't bullshit the press. And, besides, she found him charming, about half-cute, and always a good show.
Congressperson Pat Schroeder, the Colorado Democrat, suffers few fools gladly–and no male fools at all–but she just grins when her friend Charlie Wilson greets her as "Babycakes" or jokes that she is one of "Charlie's Angels." Former Texas Governor Ann Richards–whom Wilson enjoyed taking to the White House as his "date" shortly after Richards had publicly said that President Bush had been born "with a silver foot in his mouth"–credits Wilson with "guts, a good heart, and a little-boy likability."
"What is it?" I once asked Barbara Blaine, perhaps churlishly, "that allows Wilson to say and do things that make you, Molly Ivins, Pat Schroeder, and Ann Richards giggle, when if I said or did the same damn things, each of you would slap my jaws?"
"Charlie really likes women," my wife said.
"Promise you won't hit me, but so do I!"
"Charlie talks to women," my wife said.
"As do I."
"Charlie actually listens to women," my wife said.
"Oh," I said. "Well, hell, then . . ."
Wilson himself explains it thus: "I vote with the gals every time. I just refuse to genuflect or kiss their butts."
Not that I'm jealous, but I believe Charlie may be bulletproof among the ladies because he is six-feet-four, improbably slim, has all his original hair, is youthfully handsome despite his years–and, most of all, because none of the oh-so-understanding "gals" is married to him.
Let them rant and scream that I am sexist because of that judgment; in truth, I am merely an experienced, realistic husband who knows that double standards are not exclusively the property of males.
Good times was a baby-faced freshman in the Texas legislature in 1960 when I, a young congressional aide, first met him in frequently traipsing to LBJ Country to accomplish sundry political mischief, much of which did not need to appear in the Goddamned Press.
The intrigue-loving Wilson was eager to help, knowing not only where the bodies were buried but also who had assisted said bodies to the grave. He was most effective, despite most of our strategy sessions beginning in one or another bar, continuing in others, and ending in places we generally couldn't recall with great clarity come morning.
One night there was a legislative party high atop a swank penthouse apartment in the shadow of the state capitol's dome; ol' Good Times left early–about midnight–to hook up with one of those women he listens to so well. Departing, he somehow sideswiped a few parked cars on the right-hand side of the street, then veered across to do equal honors to a like number on the left-hand side. Shortly the gendarmes came and gave the Right Honorable Charles Nesbitt Wilson a personal escort to the Austin cop shop, from which he sent out an SOS call. Several legislators dashed to what they thought to be the rescue, though some came close to getting to be Charlie's cellmates on the evidence of their strong breaths, slurred speech, and unsteady gaits. In time, Honorable Wilson appeared in court with a physician's sworn statement ascribing his erratic driving to "influenza medications" the good doctor had personally prescribed for the ailing statesman. Many scoffed at this, but I believed the medicine man because I had seen ol' Good Times wash down at least a dozen presumed doses with amber-colored liquids on the night in question.
It was in those wild, young years that I adopted the personal credo, "I will go anywhere Charlie Wilson asks me, without I am tied to a tree or got a broke laig."
In time–years later–i managed to qualify for "whiskey" school in rural Maryland, where they teach one not to be so proficient in the consumption thereof. Whiskey school was not much fun; I so resisted its teachings that I was deemed a bad risk for the occasional weekend pass home.
Of all my alleged friends, Charlie Wilson–alone–drove the two-hour roundtrip each Sunday to bring me the newspapers and attempt to cheer me up. The first time, he may have gone beyond the conventional: Departing, my old friend gestured toward a rural lane and said, "King, up there by the mailbox, I hid a bottle of Scotch for you in that big bush you see about 20 yards to the right."
I shuffled and said, "Aw, hell, Charlie, I appreciate it. But I guess since I'm in this joyless damned place I've got to give their program a chance. So thanks, but . . ."
My response astonished both of us. For the only time in our long association, we became awkward with each other.
I watched my old friend drive away–stopping to pick up the rejected contraband–thinking: That may be the last time Wilson will have anything to do with me. Because I was fast learning that our whiskey-school professors had told the truth in warning, "Your sobriety will anger or discomfort many old drinking partners you think are your good friends, and they will avoid you hereafter."
True, it turned out, in many cases. But not in the case of Charlie Wilson. Ol' Good Times came back Sunday after Sunday, bless him, to minister to the sick in more acceptable ways. And I won't forget that. Ever.
Ol' good times is a weird mix. he puts great stock in his personal word, never lying to or misleading his colleagues, lobbyists, or even the Goddamned Press. ("I may avoid the press, if I've recently screwed up and don't have my ducks in a row, but I won't lie to 'em.") So colleagues who may be puzzled by his personal peccadillos nonetheless feel comfortable in trading votes or other political understandings; lobbyists need not sweat him out if he says, "I'm with you on this"; media types expect him to speak with great candor about all things political.
Yet it is a matter of record that ol' Good Times has not always been wedded to the truth when dealing with his ex-wife–or several women who aspired to be his next wife. He is made a bit uncomfortable when this contradiction is pointed out. "Well, hell, what can I say? The flesh is weak, and maybe mine is weaker that most. I can't say I'm proud of that, but I won't say I would change it if I could. Because I simply don't think I could."
Whorehouse had been running on Broadway about six months when ol' Good Times and his wife, the lovely "Goose," gave a big party. I looked around and found Wilson among the missing. "Uh, Goose," I said, "where's Charlie?" She danced her eyebrows: "He says he's back home, in the district." The lady clearly had her doubts.
Shortly, Goose put on the Whorehouse cast album. People began to talk about how many times they, or their friends, had seen the show in New York–three times, five, seven.
"I think Charlie Wilson holds the record," my wife said. "He's seen it 11 times!"
"Oh?" Goose said. "I've only seen it once."
Well, Jesus, the quick silence couldn't have been matched at the funeral of a pope! Barbara Blaine began to backtrack, saying maybe she had misunderstood, that she had only heard that somewhere or other and la-de-da and so-forth-and-so-on.
I sneaked away to telephone Charles Simpson, then the administrative assistant to Wilson, and say, "If you know where your crazy boss is, get in touch immediately and tell him to come home with the names of ten male lobbyists he took to see a certain Broadway show."
And yet, and yet . . .
When good times celebrated his 60th birthday, high atop the Kennedy Center, I counted seven of his former loves–who at one time or another had been more than passing fancies–and his ex-wife, happily remarried, among the celebrants.
Surprised, I blurted "Goose, whatinhell are you doing here?" As we hugged, she laughed and said, "That's the same thing my husband is asking!" Then she said, "Oh, I dunno, it just seemed that I should be here with Charlie and his friends tonight."
Not a bad endorsement, if you're asking me. But don't expect me to explain it.
The only thing Charlie Wilson ever asked of the congressional leadership–other than a seat on military appropriations–was to be named to the Board of Trustees of the Kennedy Center. Not so much because Charlie craved Shakespeare or chamber music–his tastes running more to musical comedies and trombones–but, he says, "because I thought it might impress the chicks if I could get real good seats." Those who openly appreciated opera and ballet, however, kept being named to the Kennedy board while Wilson stewed.
Came a day when Speaker Tip O'Neill named the new House Ethics Committee members. Wilson, listening on the House floor, turned to colleague Morris Udall: "My God, Mo, this is horrible! Tip didn't put one damn member on there who appreciates pussy or whiskey!"
Udall choked with mirth, so much so that Speaker O'Neill crooked a finger; when Udall arrived at the podium, the speaker asked what was so damned funny. Udall told him. Then the speaker broke up.
A few months later, the speaker calls and asks Wilson to drop by his office. "I was scared to death," Wilson admits. "Went over there trying to figure what I had done lately to embarrass the House of Representatives."
Wilson even recounted his old sins: worked up a certain indignation over having been falsely accused of using cocaine "when everybody with half a brain knows that alcohol is drug enough for me!" and so on.
O'Neill wallowed the big chewed cigar in the middle of his huge red Irish face and said, "Cholly, Mo Udall told me what you said about the makeup of that Ethics Committee."
"Cholly" blushed, choked, and stuttered; the speaker belly-laughed and said, "Hell, Cholly, I agree! So I'm gonna put you on that Ethics Committee."
Good Times was pluperfectly horrified. "Please don't, Mr. Speaker," he begged. "They'd laugh us both out of town! Besides, sir, I don't feel comfortable judging my peers: I'm a live-and-let-live kind of guy."
Speaker O'Neill scowled. He asked, "You still want to get on that Kennedy Center board?"
"Well, yessir. Hell, yessir!"
"Cholly," the speaker said, "it's a package deal."
So Wilson went on the Ethics Committee, where he never once voted against an erring colleague unless the accused could exhibit bad burns on his hands from stealing a hot stove, and on the Kennedy Center Board, where, indeed, he impressed many a chick with his ability to obtain "real good seats."
And they all lived happily ever after.
Maybe ol' good times ain't churchill, but I'll miss him in Congress in these grim days of plastic, hard-eyed little men, too many of whom seem to have a paucity of fun or compassion. I fancy the nation and the public may miss him, too.
Unless the Republic gets luckier than these somber times portend, we are losing an irreplaceable, original free spirit who almost reflexively rallies to the underdog and thinks more of the "little people" than is the current fashion. A man who, as Molly Ivins wrote, "puts on a good show" and also is full of the human juices.
If you happen to be a purse-mouth who fails to appreciate such qualities in public men, understand this: Me and ol' Good Times don't much give a damn what y'all think.