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Originally published Saturday, December 22, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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The real Charlie Wilson has quite a tale to tell — as movie shows

Bill Bass, a Texas appeals-court judge, is sitting in a dark theater, having just watched "Charlie Wilson's War. " As the credits roll...

The Dallas Morning News

DALLAS — Bill Bass, a Texas appeals-court judge, is sitting in a dark theater, having just watched "Charlie Wilson's War." As the credits roll, he wants to speak but can't. He's crying.

The real Charlie Wilson is one of Bass' dearest friends. To see him portrayed by Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks has reduced him to tears.

"I was very moved by it," he said. "I remember Charlie's efforts, and his efforts did change the world. Charlie is one of a handful of people who made a difference in the history of the 20th century. ... I'm so proud to have known him."

Given the power of a Hollywood movie, a new generation of people soon will know Charlie Wilson, whose cinematic bio opened Friday.

Wilson's 24-year career as a congressman from Lufkin began in 1973. The movie's focus is a covert operation he spearheaded from 1979 to 1989 that armed the mujahedeen freedom fighters of Afghanistan, whose country was being ravaged by the Soviet Union.

Wilson put together an unusual coalition of Israelis, Egyptians, Saudis, Pakistanis, Democrats and Republicans — including President Reagan — who imported to the front lines Stinger missiles that helped topple the Soviets.

The movie foreshadows grim events that followed. After the Soviets' demise, the Taliban seized control, which Wilson blames on the United States losing "the endgame." The Taliban gave rise to Osama bin Laden and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The film is based on the book of the same name by George Crile, who, as a "60 Minutes" producer, revealed the name of the Afghans' guardian angel in 1987. As Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan's president at the time, said while staring into a "60 Minutes" camera, "Charlie did it!"

Wilson, 74, recuperating in Houston from a heart transplant in September, is the first to admit that, as overwhelming as "60 Minutes" or a best-selling book can be, neither comes close to a movie.

"Words don't describe it," he said. "It's magical. It's esoteric in a way. It's just an out-of-this-planet experience. It's the most exciting thing that's ever happened in my life. And that covers a lot of ground."

Indeed, it must. The film opens with Wilson the bachelor frolicking in the penthouse suite of a Las Vegas hotel, surrounded by a hot tub full of glistening naked women who are high on cocaine.

Happily married since 1999 to a protective wife, Wilson by the 1980s had acquired a reputation as one of Washington's most active playboys. His flock of female congressional "aides" was known as "Charlie's Angels." A lover of whiskey, he hasn't had a drink, he said, since 1998.

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Former state Rep. Buddy Temple, 65, has been friends with Wilson since 1964. At that time, Wilson was in the Texas Legislature, where he would serve in the House from 1960 to 1966 and in the Senate from 1967 to 1973. Temple praised his old friend for "loyalty and compassion, a keen intellect and amazing political instincts."

One more thing: "When you're with Charlie," he said, "there's never a dull moment."

"Charlie Wilson's War" offers a ribald accounting of his love of women, including Houston socialite Joanne Herring, portrayed by Julia Roberts. Wilson said all the talk about past shenanigans has been rough on Barbara, his wife.

"We're certainly discussing it plenty now," he said. "I told her when the book came out, 'There's nothing in there I hadn't told you about.' She said, 'Yeah, but I never expected to see it in print with pictures.' "

Friends worry that all the hoopla might be a bit too much for a guy who recently received a new heart. He said it came from a 33-year-old man from Kansas City, Kan.

"I hate to be this colloquial," he said of this torrent of activity, "but it's the same kind of rush I get when the Cowboys come from behind."

Speaking of, he loves the fact that the belly dancer he sent to the Middle East to woo Egyptian allies is lasciviously portrayed in the film by Tracy Phillips, the daughter of Dallas Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips.

"She sure as hell doesn't look like her daddy," Wilson said, "and you can put that down!"

Debauchery notwithstanding, "Charlie Wilson's War" is at its best in documenting his serious side. He describes himself as "a Scoop Jackson Democrat, a liberal Democrat. I believe in being a dove but a heavily armed dove. I believe the Soviet Union did not mean us well. I despised the tyranny."

Wilson became intrigued with the Afghan conflict on Christmas Eve 1979, when the Soviets invaded. He then began to read alarming reports from the front lines and saw Dan Rather documenting the carnage on "60 Minutes." Wilson's first visit was in early 1981.

When he went to Pakistan and saw Afghan children in refugee camps with their arms and legs blown off, and families fighting for pellets of grain to stay alive, he was enraged. "I saw all the havoc, all the cruelty, all the horror and terror they'd spread," he said.

He paused, as though he too was about to cry. "I just saw an opportunity," he said, "to grab the sons o' bitches by the throat."

He did so as a member of the House Appropriations Committee. Working in secret with a maverick CIA agent (played in the film by Philip Seymour Hoffman), he secured congressional funding, which, coupled with matching contributions from foreign partners, added up to $1 billion. He said the turning point was lining up "hundreds" of Stinger missiles, which he said cost close to $80,000 each.

The high point came soon afterward. On Sept. 26, 1986, the Stinger missiles he had fought so hard to import reached Afghan fighters. On that day alone, four Hind helicopters flew into Jalalabad. Three were shot down.

"I was just exhilarated," he said. Long committed to bipartisan solutions, Wilson salutes Reagan for securing the mission. "Once Ronald Reagan gave us the OK to use Stinger missiles," he said, "the war was over. Until my dying day, I'll give Reagan credit."

Over eight years, Wilson averaged four trips a year for a total of 32. He strongly objects to critics who suggest that toppling the Soviets created a vacuum that led to the rise of bin Laden.

"No one had heard of the Taliban," he said. "They didn't exist until 11 years after the Russians were defeated. What happened was, by not pursuing the endgame as we should have, we let chaos develop in Afghanistan. I tried hard to pull the other way, but my colleagues were tired of listening to me."

A Naval Academy graduate who served as a lieutenant, Wilson is revered by his buddies for what they call his passion. For Bass, the movie's legacy will be its "accurate depiction of a very good man, warts and all."

Bass loves the scenes that show the interior of Wilson's Arlington, Va., apartment, "where Charlie loved looking down on the Marine Corps monument. He was a true patriot. He loved women and whiskey, but he was like his idol, Winston Churchill.

"As Charlie always said, Winston Churchill won the Nobel Prize for literature. He was in the last cavalry charge in modern history. He was a great writer who, in his spare time, managed to save Western civilization," Bass said.

"But then Charlie would look you in the eye and say, 'And he still drank, didn't he?' And, of course, he did. What both men have in common is greatness and the fact that each made a lasting imprint on history."

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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