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.
The ensuing week, which took us to the edge of the border with Afghanistan, left me puzzling over a disturbing question: If the United States was helping the country's freedom fighters to reestablish the "native Islamic culture"--the exact phrase that a government employee I met on the trip used--why was I detecting so much hostility? Why did U.S. Embassy employees have to work in a fortress, and why did women need a quartet of Marines to escort them when they left the building?
One clue, I later came to believe, was the special dinner I got to attend with Charlie, which the Pakistani president hosted in the lawmaker's honor. The drive to the affair made me feel the yawning chasm between the First and Third Worlds. Through the car window unfolded scenes from a life untouched by modernity. There were primitive houses made of what appeared to be mud. There were wagons pulled by oxen. There were bright-eyed little girls whom I was tempted to stow in my bag because of the societal segregation awaiting them.