Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Brief, Polite Throat-Clearing (Ahem) on the Subject of the Recently Departed Charlie Wilson

We liked Charlie Wilson as much as the next Texan, probably for most of the same reasons. It’s unlikely that a rough-hewn sort such as Wilson, who would have had difficulty finding himself a sponsor for a deaconship in the First Baptist Church, could get elected to high public office in Texas these days, although Wilson, once in, was the sort of Democrat who could have been re-elected in perpetuity, health permitting. Wilson did a lot for veterans but the greatest thing he did was helping to create the Big Thicket National Preserve (a project, of course, that required, and requires, many other hands). There was no Tom Hanks movie on that effort, nor will there be.

There is, however, one item on Wilson’s CV that gives us pause, and that is the matter for which he will be best-remembered, thanks to the Hanks movie and the George Crile book on which it was based. For some reason, a congressman’s engineering of a covert CIA-backed war with taxpayer dollars and without public sanction is considered a grand, praiseworthy endeavor, blindly celebrated, or so it would seem, in most of the obituaries we saw in the Texas media. (Here’s an otherwise very good and highly literate one from Channel 13’s Ted Oberg, in which the “charm” of Houston socialite Joanne Herring and Wilson’s ability “to secretly appropriate $500 million in U.S. tax dollars” are credited with having helped the Afghan rebels send the Soviets packing. The New York Times story on Wilson’s passing set the figure for U.S. support at “$750 million a year” throughout the 1980s.) This is the sort of notion that offends the proud isolationist in us and makes the little William Jennings Bryan inside (you’ve got one, too, although maybe you haven’t gotten in touch with him) want to roll up his sleeves, take to a lectern and began declaiming in an overwrought, Frederic March-like lather. True, this particular intervention did not require the expenditure of American blood, only tax dollars, and we suppose upending the Soviets to inadvertently pave the way for the Taliban might have seemed like the right thing to do, at least for a while, even though things didn’t work out so well for us taxpayers on down the road.

We did not read the well-regarded book on which the movie was based, but the film, if we remember correctly, did take note of the unintended consequences of Charlie Wilson’s War, which we won’t bother to enumerate here, aside from mention of Bush’s Obama’s continuing war in Afghanistan. One local station, Channel 11, also referenced the aftermath of that secret war, even hauling out Herring––who appears to have supplied her own creamy-dreamy backdrop for her interviews with both 11 and 13––to provide this shrugging acknowledgement of the vagaries of history: “You can’t predict future wars.”

As William Jennings Bryan could have told her.*

*If he hadn’t died four years before her birth (!?!).

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