Rep. Charlie Wilson in Afghanistan. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
One of the most memorable assignments of my reporting career involved black-market arms, an ex-beauty queen, and enough international intrigue to inspire a movie--which it ultimately did. But it's a quiet dinner from that action-packed week that stands out now as I watch events unfold in Egypt.
The dinner took place in 1986 in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, and it spoke volumes about a U.S. foreign policy that, in the interest of realpolitik, has all too often abandoned the principles for which this nation is supposed to stand, favoring the rich over the poor, the powerful over the disenfranchised, and--this is the scary part--the past over the future.
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I don't remember all of the guests, but their names were less important than the urbanity, self-confidence, and sense of entitlement that set them so dramatically apart from people just outside the room where we were dining. The host was then-Pakistani President Mohammad Zia ul-Haq. My ticket to this haunting evening: the late Rep. Charlie Wilson, who will need no introduction to anyone who has seen "Charlie Wilson's War," the 2007 film that Tom Hanks produced about the Texas Democrat's improbable adventures.
Charlie was Falstaff without the gut. Tall and Marlboro-Man handsome with a baritone voice, he enjoyed good booze (lots of it) and good-looking women (lots of them), and he did so with a disarming candor and self-deprecating wit that allowed him to get away with it--far longer than was good for his health.
But, as the movie and the George Crile book that inspired it detail, Charlie was an idealistic cowboy at heart who found the cause of his life in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He used his position on the House Appropriations Committee to carve out a stream of "covert" funding and arms to the Afghan freedom fighters that ultimately allowed them to oust the Soviets.
I encased the word covert in quotation marks because Charlie liked to brag about his exploits to all of the reporters who covered him, including me, at the time a Washington correspondent for The Houston Post. One day, I asked Charlie if he would let a reporter accompany him on one of his trips to visit the mujahedeen. He was crazy enough to say yes.
Which is how I found myself sitting in a middle seat in steerage while Charlie and his former Miss World/USA girlfriend enjoyed the amenities of first class on a flight from Paris (where I met up with the happy couple) to Pakistan.
Pakistan was our ally in the not-so-covert war against the Soviets and the conduit for all of the money that Charlie was sending to the mujahedeen. But it was immediately obvious that not everyone in the country appreciated the role that Uncle Sam was playing. Upon landing in Karachi, Charlie, the girlfriend, and I were hustled aboard another plane; rioting in the city made it too dangerous for us to stay, U.S. officials told us. So it was off to Islamabad, where the U.S. ambassador, Deane Hinton, insisted that I bunk in the fortress-like U.S. Embassy complex, where Wilson was also staying.