Thursday, February 11, 2010

Charles Wilson 1933 -2010, and John Murtha 1932 - 2010

One week, two Congressional titans.

Former U.S. representative Charlie Wilson, a flamboyant 12-term East Texas Democrat who used his control of CIA purse strings to finance and arm an Afghan insurgency that drove out the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, died Feb. 10 at a hospital in Lufkin, Tex. He was 76 and had a history of heart ailments.

Wilson's epic overseas engagements outlive him. The power vacuum left in Afghanistan when the Soviets exited in 1989 contributed to the rise of the Taliban, and the weapons that Wilson helped bring to that country were probably in use when the United States went to war there in 2001.

Rep. John Murtha, a Pennsylvania powerhouse in Congress for 36 years and an early ally for Speaker Nancy Pelosi in her rise to the top of the House, died Monday afternoon as a result of complications from recent surgery. ...

A Marine veteran of the Vietnam War, the 77-year-old Democrat won national fame for standing up against U.S. military involvement in Iraq. But in Congress itself, he also symbolized an old-school generation going back to Tip O’Neill and the Democratic heyday of the ’70s, when the House was less divided by partisan ideology than by often regional interests.

Wilson came and spoke in my high school gymnasium on a campaign trip in 1972, the first year he ran for Congress. He was of course tall and charismatic but especially so to this 15-year-old freshman. He was running to represent the Texas 2nd, replacing John V. Dowdy -- whom my older brother had served as a Congressional page a few years before, and who was forced into retirement from Congress earlier that year. Dowdy was under federal indictment for bribery, conspiracy, and perjury (he was later convicted and sent to prison on the perjury charge, but the other counts were overturned on appeal).

It's safe to say that Charlie Wilson was my first exposure to politics.

Much has already been written about Wilson's colorful legacy, personal as well as professional. Here's the best excerpt I found of stories I hadn't already heard:

Pretty much everyone else who ever met him developed a fondness for Charlie Wilson. They just couldn't help it. The columnist Molly Ivins once pondered how it was that a liberal feminist such as herself could love such an unreconstructed chauvinist so very, very much. "I've been worrying about my fitness to write for Ms. Magazine on account of I like Charlie Wilson," she wrote in that magazine in 1988. "Good Lord, that is embarrassing. Congressman Wilson is the Hunter Thompson of the House of Representatives; a gonzo politician. He's a sexist and has made war a spectator sport. By way of redeeming social value, he's funny, a good congressman for his district, and hasn't an ounce of hypocrisy. ... I called Wilson to ask him why we like him, thinking he might know. He said: `Feminists like me because I am an unapologetic sexist, chauvinist redneck ... who ... votes with 'em every time. I have proven that I can vote with 'em without kissing their ass. I try not to let 'em know I vote with 'em; it's more fun to have 'em mad at me.' "

Wilson and Murtha (and Dowdy, before and with them) served in Congress when business was conducted in a certain way, as you likely already know. Murtha replaced Clarence "Doc" Long (portrayed by Ned Beatty in "Charlie Wilson's War"), the chair of the subcommittee on Foreign Operations of the House Appropriations Committee when Long was defeated in his re-election bid in 1984. Murtha and Wilson thus were more tightly conjoined in the covert war-by-proxy on the USSR, of which Wilson famously said: "we f--ked up the endgame".

Earlier in their careers, Wilson had narrowly turned back an ethics charge against Murtha. Carl Hulse at the NYT relays:

As recounted in the book, “Charlie Wilson’s War”, then Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill asked the colorful Mr. Wilson to take a spot on the House ethics committee to help shut down an inquiry into Murtha, who had gotten caught up in the Abscam bribery investigation. Murtha wasn’t prosecuted for his role, but the internal watchdog committee was looking into whether he broke House rules by not reporting a bribery attempt.

In the book written with Wilson’s cooperation by investigative journalist George Crile, Wilson agreed to take the seat on the ethics panel in return for appointment to the board of the Kennedy Center, which would provide him with plenty of access to exclusive entertainment events. The inquiry was quickly derailed, leading the chief investigator to resign.

“It was the best deal I ever made,” Wilson told Crile. “I only had to be on Ethics for a year, and I get to stay on the Kennedy Center for life.”

Wilson and Murtha will be laid to rest in the heart of their mostly rural Congressional districts. Additional recommended reading:

The Hill's Pundits blog: John Murtha

Politico: Charlie Wilson's Way

Texas on the Potomac: Where are they now? -- Joanne Herring

Update: JR Behrman had this take, and sent it to me with these comments ...

Making “progressive” and “populist” coexist within anything as complex as a federal union with two written, overlapping constitutions which actually failed the challenges of (a) slavery and (b) segregation is hard, maybe impossible.

Nonetheless, Charlie Wilson and John Murtha are pretty much what I expect of representative democracy.

To be specific, I think they and a few other Democrats of their generation actually defeated the Soviet Union, where the GOP would have eventually taken us to something nuclear that they read about in the Book of Revelations.

... and Melissa Roddy at HuffPo added hers on Wilson, Herring, and another Houstonian who always seemed to have a hand in everything, James Baker III.

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