By Betsy Rothstein - 09/25/08 05:49 PM EDT
Former Rep. Charlie Wilson (D-Texas), who inspired the movie “Charlie Wilson’s War,” knows how to rile up a crowd. He needs only to walk into a room, stand there silently and wait for thunderous applause.
Such was the boisterous scene Wednesday night at a concert hall in Alexandria, Va., where Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) held a town hall meeting with the former lawmaker, nicknamed “Good Time Charlie,” as his special guest.
The vibe for Wilson was contagious in a hall packed with 1,200 guests. Police directed traffic as hundreds waiting outside were eventually guided to an anteroom with a widescreen TV.
One police officer said 600 cars had to be turned away. Moran’s office said a fire marshal threatened to close down the event if the entrance wasn’t closed, and the office’s outreach director was threatened with arrest if he did not stop letting people into the crowded event. Even Moran got stuck and had a tough time getting into his own town hall.
“I got some single-digit salutes,” Moran joked in a press gathering in the green room, where he and Wilson greeted one another with a hug.
Wilson, 75, brash with movie-star good looks, responded to questions he wanted to answer and brushed off those he didn’t. “That’s your last question,” he told a reporter who had asked only one question and was into her second inquiry.
Looking haggard, but with the same wild spark in his eyes from his congressional days, Wilson explained that it was just a year ago that he received a heart transplant. He boasted of having a new 33-year-old heart, donated by a young man whom Wilson believes died in a motorcycle wreck.
“I found out one thing about a heart transplant,” Wilson told the small media gathering. “You don’t want to have it unless you need it.”
Later he told the crowd, “My health is good, but it’s not exactly great.”
On stage, Moran captured the feeling of the crowd. “We miss you, Charlie,” Moran declared.
When Wilson walked out in a navy blazer, khaki pants and red patterned tie, the crowd’s excitement was unstoppable. This was especially true of a middle-aged woman in the sixth row dressed casually in a purple sleeveless shirt and bright red shorts, who didn’t even try to contain herself and clearly disturbed those in her midst.
“Yay, Charlie!” she shrieked, making a spectacle of herself. “I don’t mind standing up at all!” she screamed, clapping wildly. “Charlie! Charliee! Charlieee! YESSSSS!”
Once the crowd quieted, Wilson, with his wife Barbara, a pretty brunette sitting in the audience, began with an admission: “I want to set the record straight. There are a lot of accusations that have been made. I would like you all to know that I pled guilty 120 percent and I would also like to point out I wasn’t married at the time.”
Later he read aloud reviews of his biography, Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History by George Crile. One review praised him; the other called him a “womanizing alcoholic.”
Wilson remarked, “Now, this obviously was written by a pervert. I fully intended to sue, but my lawyer said it could be proven in one afternoon.”
The crowd roared with laughter.
The town hall proceeded with Moran saying there were no rules on what questions constituents could ask of Wilson. One of which was: “Can we get out of Iraq?”
“Right now, almost everybody has to admit it’s a happier situation than we thought it was going to be,” he said. “While we’re winning, let’s get out.”
How does he feel about the movie, “Charlie Wilson’s War?”
“I feel very happy with the movie,” he said. “I love Tom Hanks’s portrayal [of me]. He is a marvelous man. We’re all happy. Even the angels in the Las Vegas hot tub were happy, as far as I could tell.”
How about this one: Could Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) be president? Is she ready, or could she be ready in the future?
“It’s not smart, but I’m gonna answer that one,” he said. “No, no and no.”
He then turned to Moran. “How would you answer?”
Moran chuckled and replied, “I would say the same thing.”
Wilson held the attention of the crowd for the entire two-hour town hall. He handled easily the questions that came his way, no matter how dicey or awkward. “I thought the producers made the angels look a bit ditzy,” said a woman sitting in the balcony.
Wilson replied: “Probably, probably.”
When asked what he thinks of a Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) presidency, he didn’t hold back. “I would feel more comfortable with Obama. I think McCain is a tiny bit trigger-happy. I don’t think he’s [Obama] as likely to pull the trigger.”
The former congressman explained why he protected the people of Afghanistan from the Russians in the early 1980s. “When I was up on the side of that cliff and I’d see the suffering of the children, I just made up my mind that as long as I had a breath in my body I’d make them [the Russians] pay for what they had done,” he said. “I don’t like bullies.”
His distaste for bullies lured him into politics. A neighbor, city council incumbent Charlie Hazard, bragged that he had poisoned Wilson’s dog by feeding him glass. Wilson recalled the day when he was 13 and he watched his 14-year-old dog “die a hideous death right before me.”
Wilson explained, “I did the only thing I could at 13. That night I burned everything in his yard.”
After a pause he added, “But that wasn’t enough.”
He set his sights on taking Hazard out of office. On Election Day he transported 96 people, mostly African-Americans from poor neighborhoods, to the polls. “I told them I certainly didn’t want to influence how they voted, but I wanted them to know Charlie Hazard had poisoned my dog.”
In the end, he said, “We beat the son of a b---h by 16 points. That was the day I fell in love with America.”