Larger than life: Remembering Congressman Charlie Wilson

The outpouring of comments, calls, and e-mails made it quite apparent that most every East Texan had at least some memory of Charlie Wilson’s influence. Following his death from cardiac arrest on February 10, 2010, everyone I came in contact with had an opinion of some sort. Many recalled the first time they met Wilson.

Noticeably absent from those conversations, were any ill remarks about the former congressman. Does that suggest that he was without flaw or a past said to be dotted by raucous behavior? Not one of us are without sin. That doesn’t keep most from being simply, “good people.” This was the impression that I got from interacting with a wide sampling of people who knew Charlie Wilson on a more intimate level.

The Wednesday that Wilson died, I had two guests in-studio during our 6 and 10 p.m. newscasts. At 6 o’clock was State Representative Jim McReynolds. He had known Wilson for years – both with a keen interest in the growth of Deep East Texas. McReynolds noted Wilson’s “no excuses” approach to handling the needs of constituents. He recalled an instance 35 years ago when a local volunteer fire department needed a piece of pumping equipment called a “Water Buffalo.” McReynolds said, “All you had to do was call him. I called Charlie at his office at about 4:30 on a Friday afternoon. And of all things, he picked up. [I] told him my need. [On] Monday Fort Polk sent that water buffalo.” That was how Charlie Wilson worked, according to McReynolds.

Lori Donahue had worked for years in Wilson’s East Texas district office. She joined me on-set during our 10 p.m. broadcast. Lori recalled that Wilson, despite working and living in Washington for more than 20 years, never lost touch with home. East Texans didn’t lose touch with him, either.

It appeared that Wilson was viewed as a neighbor and  friend, not a politician. Wilson was known for visiting the 19 counties he represented in “the Mobile Office,” an RV converted into a workspace. Donahue recalled that everyone had their own Charlie Wilson story. “In fact, no one ever called him Congressman Wilson. It was always Charlie,” Donahue said. “When people called the office, they would say ‘Well, Charlie helped my cousin. He had a personal relationship with everyone.’” In fact, when people passed Wilson on the street with a problem, he encouraged them to call his office. “I did receive one call from a woman one time whose cat was in a tree. I asked if she had called the fire department. She said, ‘I call Charlie for everything.’” Donahue said one of Wilson’s defining qualities was that he was a warm person that truly cared for people.

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The novel and movie “Charlie Wilson’s War” immortalized his legacy, but the former congressman’s devotion to East Texas left a story untold on the national stage.

Days later I would begin preparations to travel to Washington, DC to attend and cover the internment services for Wilson. Our chief photographer Brad Hill and I would file a series of reports profiling certain angles of the services. We had also received a special invitation to attend a private ceremony in the House Appropriations Committee Room.

On Monday, February 22, we flew to Washington. On the plane, I sat next to a very nice woman from Houston, Theresa. We struck up conversation about different topics until we began to discuss our final destinations. She was visiting an old friend. We were on assignment. Theresa immediately began to tell me what she thought of the movie and what she knew of “Charlie Wilson’s War.” It was a few minutes into the conversation that she revealed she had met a woman also attending the funeral that was on our flight.

Once we landed Theresa introduced us to Rebecca Brune, also from Houston, who in fact had never met Charlie Wilson. As we shook hands after stepping off the plane, I noticed she was clutching a copy of Charlie Wilson’s War by George Crile. She told me she felt inspired by who he was and what he accomplished. We made plans to speak again at the burial, the next day.

Monday night we arrived to a gloomy, wet Washington evening. The city was still buried under mountains of wet snow. A week before, feet of snowfall had brought everything, including the government, to a grinding halt for days. Despite being well-traveled, I’m still fascinated by the snow. Like a child at the sight of the year’s first dusting, my attention was fixed on the white stuff. It was beautiful, making Washington seem more formal than the otherwise existing grandeur. Sidewalks were covered in some places by piles of snow 8 feet high. Busy streets were even more cramped.

Our hotel was located just across the freeway from the Pentagon, making for a picturesque view throughout the stay.  Once we checked in, we quickly began to test and set-up our equipment for the next day. Fortunately, our camera equipment had survived being stowed in the freezing belly of an airliner and transfers between both legs of our flight. Our editing software, microphones, lighting equipment all seemed to be in working order. After, it seemed logical that Brad and I venture out to acclimate ourselves with the next day’s travel route.

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KTRE Chief Photographer Brad Hill snaps still images of the U.S. Capitol building.

Being familiar with Washington, I knew that our biggest hurdle would be traffic, not physically finding locations. Taking advantage of the late-night lull in the hustle and bustle of the Capitol, we mapped-out parking areas, side streets, and direct routes back to the hotel. We then took the opportunity to do a little self-guided touring, knowing our duties would not allow for any leisure time. Brad and I are both photography enthusiasts and the snowy setting piqued our interests. Brad and I found ourselves wandering the grounds of the Capitol building, illuminated in a warm glow, by night-lighting. Unfortunately, my still camera’s capabilities to not match my desires, so my still captures were very limited. Brad’s gear was that of a true enthusiast or professional, easily able to adapt to the darkened lighting. I spent much of our trek watching Brad’s techniques and noting which objects and angles caught his attention. Though I would have preferred a return visit to DC under other circumstances, nonetheless, it was nice to be back. We quickly succumbed to the frosty night air and returned to our hotel to get in a restful night before what was sure to be a busy day.

The next morning, we arrived at Arlington National Cemetery by 10 a.m. and were met by Kaitlin Horst, a public affairs representative for the cemetery. She would be our guide while on the grounds. The cemetery pays particular attention to protecting the privacy and dignity of the families whose loved ones are buried at Arlington.  A small caravan of media was guided to Section 54, where Charlie Wilson was to be buried. Once we arrived, we met our colleagues from CNN, NBC News, the Washington Post, an Arkansas newspaper, the Associated Press, and Getty Images.

National media covering the burial of Charlie Wilson
KTRE joined national media in covering the memorial service for Charlie Wilson.

Having covered many funerals, I’ve always made a point to be empathetic of those gathered to pay respect. It is certainly a very private time, when emotions are not expected to be withheld or disguised. My goal has always been to be as minor an intrusion on those who have graciously invited our cameras. It is often particularly difficult for a journalist to cover a funeral, because emotions are running high. Others in attendance often see the media as rude, heartless, or disrespectful, without realizing the family has invited our presence. I did not experience this situation with the Wilson internment, perhaps because it was expected, as Charlie was a public figure for much of his life.

Despite the raw cold, more than a hundred mourners huddled graveside.

The former naval officer received military honors, including a ceremonial honor guard, a rifle firing party and bugler.

It was a modest service, by Arlington standards, but not without a military honor guard paying tribute to the Navy veteran. Three rifle volleys, followed by the haunting, yet strangely comforting sound of taps, echoed by a lone bugler.

“A flock of geese flew over in a perfect ‘V’, and the ‘V’ came right over where Charlie was being laid to rest,” Congressman Louie Gohmert told me. “It was in perfect formation. It was rather amazing.” The congressman said it was a fitting ceremony.

Following the grave side service, we reconnected with Rebecca Brune for an interview. She said she felt compelled to travel thousands of miles to pay her respect. “I thought he was a fabulous human being, with a marvelous life.” Brune said. “I think the people here gave testament to that, because they all knew and loved Charlie- everyone did.” Rebecca would end up being a great pleasure to converse with throughout the trip to Washington. She provided us with great insight into what made Charlie Wilson’s story so captivating to everyday people. We interviewed her after the burial service in Arlington National Cemetery.

Hundreds gathered graveside for the internment of Charlie Wilson
Hundreds gathered graveside for the burial of Charlie Wilson.

It was shortly thereafter we had an encounter with Pete Rose, a former colleague of Wilson. Rose, a founding partner of the Franklin Group, is a political consultant. He remembered working with Wilson, as an aide to a fellow Texas congressman. “Charlie took his job seriously, took his service to his country seriously, but didn’t take himself too seriously,” said Rose. “He is a dying breed in congress. I wish we had more Charlie Wilsons.”

As Pete and I shared thoughts on the service with one another, he received a text message. He let out a spirited chuckle. He said, “The Democratic Club is offering a drink special in honor of Charlie: Johnny Walker Black for five dollars.” It was known to be one of Wilson’s favorite drinks at the well-known social destination. It was just the ironic twist, to end our conversation on a lighter feeling.

Brad and I returned to our hotel to edit our stories to air in our 5 and 6 o’clock newscasts, as well as cut special versions for fellow Raycom News Network stations. We worked quickly to transfer the video to our Lufkin newsroom, as we had not completed the day’s assignments.

We had been extended a personal invitation to be the only media allowed into a private memorial reception for the late congressman.

It was standing room-only as friends, family and congressional colleagues gathered in the House Appropriations Committee Room in the Rayburn House Office Building on the National Mall.

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Reporting from Washington, DC on the internment of former Congressman Charlie Wilson.

Charlie Wilson’s booming voice and Texas swagger filled the committee room as a video from five years earlier played. It was a recording of the late congressman reflecting on his accomplishments with the Afghan rebellion.

I was impressed by how many people could fit in the modest-sized room.

Smiles and even laughter emerged through the tears, as the conversation quickly focused on cherished memories of Charlie.

I made my way to an East Texan that I immediately recognized, Wilson’s long-time friend Buddy Temple. We commented on the laughter, the upbeat atmosphere. Temple remarked, “He would have probably liked to have been here to tell stories on himself. No one can tell stories on Charlie Wilson, better than Charlie Wilson.”

Temple insists there is still much to learn about Charlie Wilson. “I think a lot of East Texans kept up with his shenanigans,” he said. “I think most people didn’t realize how powerful Charlie was, and how strong he was on the issues he cared about.”

Everyone mingled for some time before the reception officially began. One by one, friends clutched the podium, sometimes fighting back emotion, to share stories.

A group of former staff members affectionately known as “Charlie’s Angels,” always stood behind their boss. One “angel” recalled Wilson’s devotion to his staff. “He mentored us. He was loyal and he remained a lifelong friend. We’ll miss you very much Charlie.”

Wilson’s great-nephew watched as he was called upon to uphold his uncle’s vision. A priest said, “He [Wilson] worked so that you would have a world that had less violence in it than he grew up in.”

All of the people Charlie Wilson touched promised his widow, Barbara, that she would never be alone. A friend said, “Barbara, I know what a great loss you are feeling right now. There are so many of us that are here for you now and in the future.”

Brad worked quickly to capture enough video to produce another story for our 10 o’clock newscast. I said my goodbyes and explained that I had to excuse myself early to return to our hotel. As I grabbed my coat in the hallway, I brushed shoulders with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She was also leaving the reception. Brad and I rushed to the first available elevator and made our way in the lobby of the Rayburn Building. We had to squeeze through a mob of press that had gathered for an impromptu press conference with another member of Congress. They were all broadcasting live, the latest development in the healthcare reform debate.

After a long walk back to our parked car on New Jersey Ave, we returned to Crystal City. I immediately began writing while Brad navigated evening traffic on the Southeast Freeway. We rushed upstairs and the editing process began. Brad began selecting his best video to pair with the script I had prepared. After recording my voice, we worked to convert the finished product and transfer it to the Lufkin newsroom. I uploaded my scripts through our mobile laptop and coordinated last-minute information with my producer, Katie Worden.

Brad and I used the remainder of the evening, returning to Capitol Hill for a last look at the District, before our flight home to East Texas. We stopped by the White House, then around the mall, finally seeing the Lincoln Memorial as we returned again to the hotel.

The next morning we flew back to Lufkin. Covering Charlie Wilson’s passing is an experience I’ll never forget. He is inarguably one of the most influential figures in East Texas history. Wilson’s contributions and impact may never be fully recognized. His persona has captivated the interests of America for decades and  his legacy will continue to develop for decades.

The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of KTRE/KLTV-TV or Raycom Media.  They are solely the opinion of the author. All content © Copyright 2010 Lane Luckie

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Shayne Creppel says:

    Good Ole Charlie. Lost a good one. At least he was honest about what he did, unlike these idiots in Congress today. What a colorful Lufkin icon.

    Like

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