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So long, Goodtime Charlie

A maverick congressman known to many as Goodtime Charlie, whose political career took him from a crowded Las Vegas hot tub to the mountains of Afghanistan, was hailed yesterday as a true American original who changed the course of history.

Charlie Wilson, a swashbuckling Texas Democrat, who died this week aged 76, earned a reputation as a hard-drinking womaniser; a man who gave his girlfriends nicknames like Snowflake, Tornado and Firecracker, and who once called a feminist congresswoman 'Babycakes'.

He once held a 'Beat The Rap' party after the authorities abandoned an investigation into reports that he had snorted cocaine from a hot tub in Las Vegas with two showgirls who wore only high heels.

Bellydancer

He claimed his place in history, however, with an ardent campaign for US support for the Afghan Mujahidin against the occupying Soviet forces in the 1980s -- an effort that was immortalised in the 2007 Tom Hanks film Charlie Wilson's War. Once, seeking support from Egyptian officials for an arms transfer, he flew a Texas belly-dancer to Cairo. On a government-funded trip to Pakistan, he took along a girlfriend, Annelise Ilschenko, a former Miss USA World.

Friends praised Mr Wilson yesterday for tilting the balance of the war with the introduction of Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and thus playing a key role in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

"America has lost an extraordinary patriot," said Robert Gates, the US defence secretary.

Dan Rather, the veteran newscaster whose reporting inspired Mr Wilson to take up the Afghan cause, offered a glowing tribute. "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," Mr Rather said. "He dreamed big, lived large."

Mr Wilson got into politics as a teenager in the small East Texas town of Trinity, when he ran against a city council member he suspected of having poisoned his dog.

After serving as a lieutenant in the US Navy, he won 12 consecutive terms in Congress with the same slogan: "Wilson gets it done."

His conversion to the Afghan cause came on a congressional fact-finding trip to the Middle East in 1982 when he added a stop in Pakistan at the behest of a Houston socialite, Joanne Herring, played in the film by Julia Roberts.

George Crile wrote in the book Charlie Wilson's War that Ms Herring had swept Wilson "from the Bible Belt into her dazzling world of black-tie dinners, movie stars, countesses, Saudi princes and big-time Republican oil magnates".

Weapons

As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, Mr Wilson pushed through billions of dollars in funding for weapons for the Mujahidin, including the shoulder-fired Stinger missiles that negated the Soviets' air advantage.

Atta Mohammed Nur, a Mujahidin commander, said yesterday that the Stinger missiles he received from the US shot down several Soviet jets.

"Mr Wilson is in the heart of the Afghan people," he said. "Never will the Afghan nation forget him." He continued to campaign for the Afghans even after Soviet troops withdrew in 1989.

"Charlie warned against abandoning that traumatised country, a warning we should have heeded," Mr Gates said.

hnews@herald.ie


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