Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of How the Wildest Man in Congress and a Rogue CIA Agent Changed the Historyby George Crile
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Charlie Wilson's War was a publishing sensation and a New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times bestseller. In the early 1980s, a Houston socialite turned the attention of maverick Texas congressman Charlie Wilson to the ragged band of Afghan "freedom fighters" who continued, despite overwhelming odds, to fight the Soviet invaders. Wilson, who sat on the all-powerful House Appropriations Committee, managed to procure hundreds of millions of dollars to support the mujahideen. The arms were secretly procured and distributed with the help of an out-of-favor CIA operative, Gust Avrokotos, whose working-class Greek-American background made him an anomaly among the Ivy League world of American spies. Avrakotos handpicked a staff of CIA outcasts to run his operation and, with their help, continually stretched the Agency's rules to the breaking point. Moving from the back rooms of the Capitol, to secret chambers at Langley, to arms-dealers' conventions, to the Khyber Pass, this book presents an astonishing chapter of our recent past, and the key to understanding what helped trigger the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union and ultimately led to the emergence of a brand-new foe in the form of radical Islam.
Christian Science Monitor
Brooks starts out easy. It's 1996 and Hannah Heath, an expert in rare books, has been lured from her laid-back life in Australia to Sarajevo, "where they just stopped shooting at each other five minutes ago." Hannah's job is to conserve and analyze the world-famous Sarajevo Haggadah, one of the earliest illuminated Jewish texts. The ancient manuscript, filled with images so rich and beautiful that it is now a priceless artifact, has appeared, vanished, and reappeared numerous times in its 500-year history. Its most recent rediscovery in war-torn Sarajevo, where a Muslim librarian has saved this Jewish holy book, is nothing short of a miracle.
Hannah, at age 30 a cranky and demanding loner, is the first expert to handle the Haggadah in more than a hundred years. Though uneasy in the bombed-out city, she's ecstatic at the chance to preserve the rare volume:
As many times as I've worked on rare, beautiful things, that first touch is always a strange and powerful sensation. It's a combination between brushing a live wire and stroking the back of a newborn baby's head.The Sarajevo Haggadah lives up to her expectations. Decorated with pigments made from silver and gold, saffron, malachite, and crushed lapis lazuli, it's a thing of extraordinary beauty. It also contains startling anomalies -- paintings of the human form done at a time when this was considered the highest sin, and the depiction of the earth as round, drawn when such a radical concept was punished by torture and death.
Though Brooks's book is a work of fiction, the Sarajevo Hagaddah itself is quite real. The author first learned of it during her stint covering the Bosnian war for The Wall Street Journal. When the manuscript suddenly resurfaced, speculation about where it had been, and how and by whom it had been saved over the course of its lifetime, fueled her imagination. With scant information to get in her way, Brooks was free to blend existing fact with her own lively fancy.
Though Hannah gets the story started, the series of tiny artifacts she finds in the binding of the Haggadah soon send us across the Continent and back in time. A fragment of an insect wing leads to Sarajevo in 1940. Right away, we reap the benefit of Brooks's gift for quickly setting a scene:
The wind blew across the Miljacka river, hard as a slap. Lola's thin coat was no protection. She ran across the narrow bridge, her hands thrust deep in her pockets. On the other side of the river, a set of rough-hewn stone stairs rose abruptly, leading to a warren of narrow lanes lined with shabby apartment buildings.Later, with equal deftness, Brooks lets us share a character's yearning for a long-lost home:
We do not feel the sun here. Even after the passage of years, that is still the hardest thing for me. At home, I lived in brightness. Heat baked the yellow earth and dried the roof thatch until it crackled.And here, with the sparest of imagery, Brooks walks a desperate boy onto a frozen river, then breaks your heart:
Embracing his little sister, he stepped off the bank, onto the ice. He walked to the center, where the ice was thin. His sister's head lay on his shoulder. They stood there for a moment, as the ice groaned and cracked. And then it gave way.Each object that Hannah finds within the pages of the Sarajevo Haggadah acts as a springboard for Brooks to tell a new piece of the tale. A missing decoration on the manuscript leads to fin-de-siècle Vienna, where German nationalism is on the rise. Wine stains on the parchment point to the Inquisition in Venice. A white hair reveals a series of surprising twists in 15th-century Spain. In between historical chapters, Hannah's own life takes center stage. A love affair, a family secret, and a betrayal send the story spinning.
Gathered together, the historical vignettes form a patchwork of information, not just about the manuscript's journey, but also about the long and tangled history of persecution among Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Brooks's knowledge runs deep. She packs each page with history and context, then illuminates them with emotion.
I wanted to give a sense of the people of the book, the different hands that made it, used it, protected it. I wanted it to be a gripping narrative, even suspenseful. So I wrote and rewrote certain sections of historical background to use as the seasoning between the discussion of technical issues.That's Hannah explaining her approach to work, but it could just as easily be Brooks explaining the genesis of the novel.
For the most part, she -- and Hannah -- succeed. But a story made of fragments leads to a fragmented story. Though Brooks works hard to bring life and urgency to each new setting and cast of characters, the constant change can be jarring. The choice to move backward in time, from the present day to the Haggadah's creation in Spain five centuries ago, makes for a sometimes arduous read.
So keep that pen and paper handy. Write down names. Mark down dates. Using a map will probably help. How the lives of the people of the book merge, diverge, and reconnect forms the affecting arc of this ambitious and accomplished novel. --Veronique de Turenne
Veronique de Turenne is a Los Angelesbased journalist, essayist, and playwright. Her literary criticism appears on NPR and in major American newspapers.
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Charlie Wilson's WarThe Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History
By George Crile
Grove Atlantic, Inc.Copyright © 2003 George Crile
All right reserved.
A Hot Tub in Las Vegas
When Congressman Charlie Wilson set off for a weekend in Las Vegas on June 27, 1980, there was no confusion in his mind about why he had chosen to stay at Caesars Palace. He was a man in search of pure decadent pleasure, and the moment he walked into the hotel and saw the way the receptionists were dressed, he knew he had come to the right place. No doubt there were other members of the Ninety-sixth Congress who fantasized about orgies and altered states. But had any of them chosen to take the kind of plunge that Charlie Wilson had in mind, you can be sure they would have gone to some trouble to maintain a low profile, if not don a disguise.
Instead Charlie strode into the lobby of Caesars almost as if he were trying to imitate his childhood hero, Douglas MacArthur, majestically stalking ashore to take back the Philippines. He looked in no way ashamed or uncertain about what he was doing in this center of gambling and entertainment.
In truth, it wouldn't have been easy for Wilson to fade into any background. Six foot seven in his cowboy boots, he was handsome, with one of those classic outdoor faces that tobacco companies bet millions on. And he just didn't have the heart or the temperament to operate in the shadows; he felt like a soldier out of uniform when he wasn't wearing his trademark bright suspenders and boldly striped shirts with their custom- designed military epaulets.
Moreover, Wilson had never been able to shake the politician's impulse to take center stage. He covered ground rapidly, shoulders back, square jaw jutting forward. There were no volume controls on his voice as he boomed out greetings with astonishing clarity-and people in the Caesars lobby turned to see who was making such a stir. He looked like a millionaire, but the truth was, after eight years in the Texas legislature and almost as many in the House, he had nothing to show for his efforts but debt and a $70,000-a-year government salary that didn't come near to supporting his lifestyle.
Along the way, however, Wilson had discovered that he didn't need money of his own to lead a big, glamorous life. The rules governing Congress were far looser in those days, and he'd become a master at getting others to pick up the tab: junkets to exotic foreign lands at government expense, campaign chests that could be tapped to underwrite all manner of entertainments, and, of course, the boundless generosity of friendly lobbyists, quick to provide the best seats at his favorite Broadway musicals, dinners at the finest Parisian restaurants, and romantic late-night boat parties on the Potomac.
All of which explains how the tall, charismatic congressman with the blazing eyes and the ever-present smile had grown accustomed to moving about the world with a certain flair. And so as he arrived in Las Vegas, he was observing his hard-and-fast rule that whenever he traveled, he went first class and tipped lavishly. The bellhops and receptionists at Caesars loved this, of course, and Wilson, in turn, appreciated their outfits: little white goddess robes showing lots of cleavage for the girls, and Roman togas and sandals for the bellhops.
In all of Vegas, there was no place like Caesars Palace in 1980. It was the first of the great hotel emporiums to be inspired by the fall of a civilization. Its promoters had had the genius to recognize that the sins of Rome could seem far more enticing than any contemporary offering; and as the young Roman in the toga whipped out the gleaming, two-inch-thick golden key to the Fantasy Suite, he opened a door designed to lead even the most pious of visitors straight to hell.
Charles Nesbitt Wilson comes from a part of the country very familiar with Satan. The Second Congressional District lies in the heart of the Bible Belt, and it may well be that Wilson's Baptist and Pentecostal constituents spend more time worrying about sin and wrestling with the Devil than just about any other group of Americans. JESUS IS THE LORD OF LUFKIN reads the huge sign in the center of the district's biggest city where Wilson maintained a house, on Crooked Creek Road.
The congressman did at least have one dim justification for being in Las Vegas that weekend. He could say he was there to help a constituent: the striking twenty-three-year-old Liz Wickersham, former Miss Georgia, fourth runner-up in the Miss America contest, soon-to-be Playboy cover girl, and, later, host of a CNN talk show that an admirer, Ted Turner, would create specifically for her. The free-spirited Wickersham was the daughter of one of Wilson's main fund-raisers, Charlie Wickersham, who owned the Ford-Lincoln dealership in Orange, Texas, where Wilson always got special deals on his huge secondhand Lincolns. When Liz moved to Washington, her father asked Wilson to show her around, which he did with great enthusiasm. He even took her to the White House, where he introduced her to Jimmy Carter, proudly informing him that Liz Wicker-sham had won the Miss Georgia beauty contest the very year Carter had been elected president. There was never any question that Wilson would go all out to promote the career of his friend and fund-raiser's attractive young daughter. Now, in Vegas, he was doing just that-orchestrating an introduction to a producer who was casting for a soap opera.
A few months earlier, a young hustler named Paul Brown had approached him about helping to develop a Dallas-type TV series based on the real political goings-on in the nation's capital. It wasn't long before Brown had convinced Wilson to invest most of his savings-$29,000 and to sign on as the show's consultant. The reason for the Las Vegas weekend was to meet a big-time Hollywood producer who, Brown claimed, was eager to back the project.
It was a giddy moment for Wilson and Liz as they sat in the Fantasy Suite talking about a deal that was all but iced. Brown had already persuaded Caesars to comp the congressman's stay, and now he was making Charlie and Liz feel like they were the toasts of the town. He had brought up some pretty showgirls, and before long the whole party was acting as if they were part of a big-time Hollywood mogul's entourage, knocking back champagne as they congratulated one another on the deal that was about to be signed and the role that Liz was about to land.
Two years later, teams of investigators and federal prosecutors would spend weeks trying to reconstruct exactly what the congressman did that night after Paul Brown and the other hangers-on left the Fantasy Suite. It almost landed Wilson in jail. And given the very high wire he later had to walk to avoid indictment, it's quite astonishing to hear the way he cheerfully describes those moments in the hot tub that the investigators were never quite able to document. No matter how much hellish trouble it later caused him, the congressman leaves the unmistakable impression that he relished every single moment of his outrageous escapade.
"It was an enormous Jacuzzi," he recalled. "I was in a robe at first because, after all, I was a congressman. And then everyone disappeared except for two beautiful, long-legged showgirls with high heels. They were a bit drunk and flirtatious and they walked right into the water with their high heels on. . . . The girls had cocaine and the music was loud-Sinatra, 'My Kind of Town.' We all mellowed out, saying outrageous things to each other. It was total happiness. And both of them had ten long, red fingernails with an endless supply of beautiful white powder. It was just tremendous fun-better than anything you've ever seen in the movies."
As Wilson later framed the episode that almost brought him down, "the Feds spent a million bucks trying to figure out whether, when those fingernails passed under my nose, did I inhale or exhale-and I ain't telling."
Other middle-aged men have brought young women to the Fantasy Suite for activities not unlike Wilson's. But ordinarily there is something a bit desperate and tawdry about such aging pleasure seekers. It's unlikely that any of them would be able to talk about their debauchery in such a way that it would sound almost fresh and innocent. Charlie Wilson, however, had a genius for getting people to judge him not as a middle-aged scoundrel but instead as if he were a good-hearted adolescent, guilty of little more than youthful excess.
This survival skill permitted him to routinely do things that no one else in Congress could have gotten away with. One of the first to marvel at this unique capacity to openly flaunt the rules was the young Diane Sawyer, who met Wilson in 1980 when she was just beginning her career as a network correspondent. "He was just untamed," she recalled, "tall and gangly and wild-like a kid before they discovered Ritalin. He had this ungoverned enthusiasm, and it extended to women and the world."
The congressman was like no one Sawyer had met in Washington. He was simply outrageous. Sawyer recalled the experience of driving with Charlie in his big old Continental on one of their few dinner dates: "Going down Connecticut Avenue with him, I felt as if we could have been driving into any American Graffiti hamburger place."
When Wilson was first elected to Congress, he'd persuaded a distinguished college professor, Charles Simpson, to leave academia and sign on as his administrative assistant. Simpson says Wilson was the brightest person he's ever worked with: "He had an uncanny ability to take a complex issue, break it down, get all the bullshit out, and deliver the heart of it. There's no question he could have been anything he wanted to be. His goal was to become secretary of defense. Certainly he intended to run for the Senate."
But Simpson gradually came to believe that his boss had a fatal flaw. That failing was perfectly summed up in a fitness report written by Wilson's commanding officer in the navy in the late 1950s: "Charlie Wilson is the best officer who ever served under me at sea and undoubtedly the worst in port."
There was little question in Simpson's mind in those days that his boss had a drinking problem. As with many alcoholics, it was not immediately noticeable; Wilson had an uncanny ability to consume enormous quantities of Scotch and seem unaffected. Also, he was a happy drunk who told wonderful stories and made everyone laugh. On the occasions when drinking would get to him, Simpson says, "Wilson would simply lie down on the floor for an hour, wake up, and act as if he had just had twelve hours of sleep. It was the most unreal thing I'd ever seen. He'd do this at his own parties-just sleep for an hour with everything going on around him, then get up and start again."
Most of the 435 members of Congress lead surprisingly anonymous lives in Washington. They are, of course, celebrities of sorts in their own districts, but the reality of life in the capital is that all but a few will leave Washington without much of anyone knowing they had been there. Wilson, in contrast, had begun to attract a great deal of media attention by the early 1980s, albeit the kind that any other politician would have considered the kiss of death. The gossip columnists called him "Good-Time Charlie," and they had a good time themselves describing the parade of beauty queens he escorted to White House receptions and fancy embassy parties. One Texas newspaper called him "the biggest playboy in Congress." The Washington Post featured a picture of Wilson and House Majority Leader Jim Wright saddled up on white horses, riding down Pennsylvania Avenue to a nightclub Wilson had just invested in. The Dallas Morning News observed that there were more congressmen on the floor of Wilson's disco, Élan ("a club for the dashing" was its motto), than you were ever likely to find on the floors of Congress. When challenged about his lifestyle, Wilson replied good-naturedly, "Why should I go around looking like a constipated hound dog? I'm having the time of my life."
In truth, at age forty-seven, in his fourth term in office, Charlie Wilson was completely lost. Public officials are forever doing stupid things, but they don't step into hot tubs with naked women and cocaine unless they are driven to play Russian roulette with their careers. And it was hard not to conclude that this recently divorced congressman was a man in free fall, programmed for disaster.
Wilson himself would later say, "I was caught up in the longest midlife crisis in history. I wasn't hurting anybody, but I sure was aimless." If Charlie Wilson's midlife crisis had thrown him off course, it was nothing compared to the crisis America was going through. The night Wilson checked into Caesars Palace, Ted Koppel had opened his Nightline broadcast with a disturbing refrain: "Good evening. Tonight is the two hundred and thirty-seventh night of captivity for the hostages in Tehran." The United States, with its $200 billion annual defense budget, couldn't even force a taunting Third World nation to turn over fifty hostages. And then, when it finally screwed up its courage to mount a rescue mission, the whole world watched the humiliating spectacle of Desert One, as a U.S. helicopter pilot lost his vision in a blinding dust cloud and rammed into a parked plane, leaving eight soldiers dead and the rescue mission aborted.
Over and over again it was said that "Vietnam syndrome" had infected the spirit of America. And by the summer of 1980 a growing number of conservatives, led by Ronald Reagan, had begun to warn that the Soviet Union might have achieved nuclear superiority, that a "window of opportunity" had been opened in which the Soviets could launch and win a nuclear war. Other voices added to the unease, claiming that the KGB had infiltrated most Western intelligence services and that they were mounting devastatingly effective "disinformation" campaigns, which were blinding America to the danger it faced.
To the president at the time, Jimmy Carter, this kind of extreme worst-case thinking had created what he called "America's paranoid fear of Communism." A born-again Christian, a onetime peanut farmer and former governor of Georgia, Carter had almost no experience in foreign affairs when he ran for president, but he had won over an American public still traumatized by Vietnam and Watergate. The intelligence scandals in the late 1970s had only reinforced the widespread suspicion that the CIA was out of control-a virtual government within the government. Vowing "never to lie" to the American public and to introduce a new morality in Washington, Carter had all but promised an end to the CIA's dirty tricks.
Once in office, President Carter moved to discipline the Agency, coming close to suggesting that it was time to stop conducting covert operations altogether.
Excerpted from Charlie Wilson's War by George Crile Copyright © 2003 by George Crile
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
George Crile is a veteran producer for 60 Minutes and 60 Minutes II and lives in New York City with his wife and four daughters.
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