Good-time Charlie today? Still fast-talking, still fun-loving, still sporting his trademark suspenders. But he does have a new heart. After 40 days on a waiting list, the flamboyant 74-year-old former Democratic Congressman underwent a lifesaving transplant surgery in Houston in late September, and although he's still in quarantine, he pronounces the procedure "an enormous success. I told them to keep me alive till the movie comes out, and I feel pretty good." As a get-well present, Tom Hanks, who plays Wilson in the movie, gave him the binoculars he used in Saving Private Ryan, which had been Wilson's all-time favorite flick. Until now, that is.
Wilson's private life is serene. He has retired to Lufkin, Texas, and has been married for nine years to Barbara Alberstadt, a stunning former ballerina he first met at a party in Washington in 1980, during his racy tabloid years. She accompanied Wilson to Hollywood and Morocco while he served as kibitzer, gadfly and ad hoc consultant on Charlie Wilson's War. "We lived through mud slides, rain and windstorms," he says. "Barbara even got to ride a camel. I've done that a lot before," he adds dryly. In the 1980s he rode up and down the Khyber Pass, looking like John Wayne, in an effort to cheer on the mujahedin.
Wilson expresses no regret over using his power base in Washington to covertly funnel billions in arms through the CIA to the so-called freedom fighters. For him, the best part came in 1986, when Stinger missiles he supplied arrived to clear Soviet helicopters from the skies. Describing it as a "total high," he says he knew then it was only a matter of time before the Russians would leave. "Who would have thought the 'evil empire' would collapse and, most astonishingly, that it would collapse without a single drop of blood from an American soldier?" He also has no remorse over his devotion to the Afghan guerrillas, many of whom later became Islamic warriors and formed the Taliban. "We were fighting the evil empire. It would have been like not supplying the Soviets against Hitler in World War II," he says. "Anyway, who the hell had ever heard of the Taliban then?"
What is truly mind-boggling about Wilson's extraordinary saga is that not one word of it leaked to the press. He credits this to the bipartisan spirit in Congress at the time. "It never leaked because nobody wanted it to," he says. "Everybody was pulling for [the mujahedin]. It was amazing and will never, never, ever happen again."
Now that his secret life has become more public than ever, Wilson is just focused on making it to the premiere of Charlie Wilson's War in Los Angeles. Both Barbara and his cardiologist will be at his side for his moment of glory. "Look," he says, "making that movie was the most fun I ever had in my whole entire life. And believe me, that covers a lot of ground."
Washington journalist McElwaine first profiled Wilson in 1977