Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Good Time Charlie

I didn't get around to seeing "Charlie Wilson's War" over the holidays, but I would still like to. Maybe this weekend.

I want to see it not just because the movie got good reviews and because the topic interests me. Charlie Wilson, now retired, was the first congressman I ever had occasion to cover back in rural East Texas in the late 1970s.

I was working in a small town for the Palestine Herald-Press, but his was a rural district, so he spent a fair amount of time courting the newspaper. He was a classic Southern politician of the era: tall, good-looking, with a booming voice. He is one of the few people depicted in the movies who looked better in real life than the actor portraying him on the screen. When he stood with his shoulders rared back, he wasn't merely ramrod straight. He was more than that, practically concave, a bantam rooster at full height. When he stood in front of the room, in a well tailored suit and pinstripe shirt, thoughtfully sucking on tiny spectacles, he was an impressive sight.

His was a brand of politics that no longer seems to exist. I agree with Jim Gransbery that conservatives and liberals are mainly distinguishable these days by loyalties, not by ideology. Wilson was a Democrat, of course; that was mandatory in East Texas in those days. But his politics consisted of a sly mixture of conservatism, populism and old-style liberalism. He backed the mujahideen in Afghanistan, Somoza in Nicaragua, Medicaid, the Equal Rights Amendment, choice on abortion and increases in the minimum wage. His reputation as a Washington party animal apparently was well earned, but I can't recall that it ever was a campaign issue. People honestly seemed to think that it was nobody's business but his own.

And he wasn't afraid to bump heads. Wayne Sellers, the publisher of the little paper I worked for, was a rail hobbyist and a booster of Amtrak. When he asked after a Chamber of Commerce speech why Wilson didn't do more to push funding for trains, Wilson replied, his voice booming across the room, "Because we can't make people ride them, Wayne."

He wasn't the sort of politician one now associates with this conservative, Bible belt part of Texas. But he made it all work, serving 12 years in the Texas Legislature and 24 years in the U.S. House.

No comments: