HOUSTON // Former US Representative Charlie Wilson, the swashbuckling Texan chronicled in film for helping secure billions of dollars to fund covert US operations against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, died on Wednesday of cardiac arrest. He was 76. Mr Wilson, a democrat, served 12 consecutive terms in the House of Representatives, and was known as the "Liberal from Lufkin," the town in mostly conservative east Texas where he lived.
He had complained of chest pains yesterday and was pronounced dead when he arrived at Memorial Health System of East Texas in Lufkin, the hospital said in a statement. In the 2007 film Charlie Wilson's War, actor Tom Hanks portrayed Mr Wilson as a boozy womaniser who found his life's cause in helping mujahideen in Afghanistan fight and eventually repel occupying Soviet forces. As a long-time member of the House Appropriations Committee, Wilson quietly helped steer billions of dollars to the US Central Intelligence Agency, which distributed the funds to buy Afghan fighters hi-tech weapons like Stinger missiles used to shoot down Soviet helicopter gunships.
"I just saw the opportunity to grab the sons o'bitches by the throat," the fiercely anti-communist Wilson told the Dallas Morning News in a 2007 interview. The US defence secretary Robert Gates, who was at the CIA during the covert campaign, said Wilson's life showed how "one brave and determined person can alter the course of history." "His efforts and exploits helped repel an invader, liberate a people, and bring the Cold War to a close," Mr Gates said.
After the Soviet withdrawal, Wilson expressed reservations about US politicians' decisions to cut funds to Afghanistan, blamed for creating a void that led to the rising influence of Osama bin Laden and al Qa'eda. "Charlie kept fighting for the Afghan people and warned against abandoning that traumatised country to its fate ? a warning we should have heeded then, and should remember today," Mr Gates said.
On a less flattering side, the movie opens with Mr Wilson in a hot tub in a Las Vegas hotel, flanked by two strippers who are high on cocaine. The US Justice Department in 1980 investigated Wilson for possible drug use, but the probe came up empty. "The fees 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," Mr Wilson told author George Crile, who included the material in his book, Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History."
Mr Wilson was known for hiring attractive young women to staff his congressional office in Washington, where they were known as "Charlie's Angels" after the then-popular TV show. While known as a defence hawk, Mr Wilson had a liberal voting record on social issues, despite his district's conservative leanings. He was born in Trinity, Texas, in 1933, attended the US Naval Academy, and served in the US Navy. He was elected to the Texas legislature and went on to serve in the US House from 1973 to 1997. He is survived by his wife Barbara and sister Sharon Allison.