The hottest read this summer from Capitol Hill to Chevy Chase was a New York Times best-seller, slam-bang, cloak-and-dagger, near-incredible Washington story that just happens to be true.
The author, television executive ("60 Minutes" producer) George Crile tells --to quote the book jacket-"the untold story of how a whiskey swilling, skirt-chasing, scandal-prone congressman from Texas [launched] the biggest and most successful covert operation in U.S. history," teaming with a rogue CIA operative to arm Afghanistan freedom fighters against the Soviet invaders.
"Charlie Wilson's War" (Atlantic Monthly Press) opens with an award ceremony a decade later at the CIA's Langley Park headquarters honoring Charlie Wilson , the same wild Texas congressman that CIA honchos had originally disdained as an "unpredictable maverick."
Actually, Crile relates, the whole Afghan story began before Wilson's involvement, when Joanne Herring , a beautiful blonde Houston socialite-also renowned as a hostess in Washington and Paris-sought help for the Afghans because of her own connection with neighboring Pakistan.
Describing Joanne, Crile says reporters covering her usually evoked Scarlett O'Hara, but that "to appreciate her full impact, it helps to add Zsa Zsa Gabor, Dolly Parton and even a bit of Arianna Huffington."
Joanne, he says "talked of nothing but politics and the origins of freedom" and while only a teenager joined right-wing groups and thought of herself as a dedicated anti-Communist with family ties back to George Washington's sister.
Later, as Joanne King , she had her own popular daily television talk show, then married wealthy oilman Bob Herring , who ran the largest natural gas company in the U.S., while raising two sons.
She began traveling with him to Europe and to the oil lands of the Middle East. In Paris, the Herrings met Sahabzada Yaqub Khan , the ambassador to the U.S., later to be foreign minister of Pakistan, who proposed that Bob Herring become Pakistan's honorary consul in Houston. Bob declined, suggesting Joanne instead. The result, says Crile, was "one of the most bizarre diplomatic appointments ever made by a fundamentalist Muslim country."
Instead of the mere ceremonial role usual to an honorary consul, Joanne "acted as if she had been made a full-fledged ambassador or minister of trade," organizing benefits, seeking economic opportunities for Pakistan, and persuading designer friends Pierre Cardin , Oscar de la Renta and Emilio Pucci to create designs native craftspeople could produce. She went to the Pakistani villages, extolling capitalism as she motivated them to improve their lives by earning income from producing these highly-styled dresses and rugs.
Pakistan, pleased, granted her official status as an "honorary man," to be addressed as "sir." In this innovative and high-energy woman they got much more than they had expected; but her role was to increase dramatically, more than she or they had ever dreamed.
Undaunted, Joanne took off for Pakistan after hearing that Zia was a committed anti-Communist who stood as one of the few strong bulwarks to Communist expansion in the Middle East. Later that year, after the Soviets invaded neighboring Afghanistan, she was more committed than ever in her support for Zia.
She explained her reasons in a phone call with this column: "The Soviets were using Hind helicopter gunships able to wipe out villages, and they had the latest arms, while the Afghan freedom fighters- the mujahideen-had only old weapons and few of those. I realized that if the Soviets took over Afghanistan, Pakistan could fall next in what would become a string of take-overs aimed at threatening the supply of oil to the West."
To go back to Crile's words "The unexpected surprise of [her trip] was the astonishing impact Herring had on Zia. He was a fundamentalist Muslim and she a born-again Christian (but) she was Zia's most trusted American advisor," and he even appointed her roving ambassador to the world.
Then began a difficult time for Joanne. Bob Herring had died of cancer and she found it almost impossible to rally meaningful support for her causes of Pakistan and the Afghans; people were ignoring the Soviet-Afghan war, indifferent to the threat.
At the same time another Texan, Congressman Charlie Wilson, a six-foot-seven Marlboro Man in cowboy boots, had maneuvered himself into a position of power. He won a seat on the all-important House Defense Appropriations Committee, which funds the CIA and the Pentagon. This allowed him to funnel money directly to the CIA, an opportunity he exploited as no congressman had ever done before.
Joanne remembered him from two years earlier when he came to one of her famed dinner parties. (The State department frequently enlisted her to entertain visiting heads of state, such as the Swedish king, Princess Grace , Anwar Sadat , the Shah of Iran and King Hussein .
Realizing Charlie's appropriations support could be vital, she arranged for him to meet someone who could recruit him, the legendary humanitarian Charlie Fawcett , telling Wilson "There have been 18 books written about him. Charlie has been decorated by almost every country in the world. He was the first man into the Congo after the bloodbath, and he married eleven Jewish girls to get them out of Nazi Germany and said he didn't have one honeymoon."
Fawcett was also an ambulance driver early in World War II, an RAF pilot during the Battle of Britain, and did a tour in the French Foreign Legion. He wound up acting in over 100 B-movies, leaping out of buildings and riding horses over cliffs. Many of the films were made in Italy, where Warren Beatty remembers him as the center of "La Dolce Vita," loved by everyone and dubbed "the king of Rome" by the gossip columnists.
She told Wilson that six months earlier Fawcett sent her a message: "Come immediately. Bring film equipment. The world doesn't know what is going on here."
Once in Pakistan, Zia had planes and helicopters accompany her to the border, and Charlie Fawcett got over the border into Afghanistan. For her safety, she was dressed like a man, and given a huge bodyguard with a handlebar mustache and an ancient Enfield rifle, who at one point moved her about in a barrel to keep her hidden.
Their resulting film, "Courage is Our Weapon," would never win an Oscar, even with Orson Welles , Fawcett's pal from Rome, as narrator, but it showed the plight of an army without weapons against a great invading power.
It was decided. Charlie Wilson, always an outspoken champion of the underdog, would help, and Joanne, cheering from the sidelines and pulling strings in America was backup.
(During our conversation, Joanne volunteered "Charlie and I became sweethearts, and he proposed marriage, but it wouldn't have worked. He's now married, and we remain good friends. The moment I truly realized all our efforts were going to be rewarded was at one of my dinners when [former Secretary of State] James Baker took my arm as we left the table and said, "We're going to get you the good stuff.")
The body of the book is a picaresque account of the voyages and chicaneries of Charlie and his sidekick and fellow co-conspirator, Greek-American Gust Avrakotos , in getting arms to the Afghans. Working quietly, they channeled billions in U.S. aid to the cause, persuaded the Saudis to provide matching funds, and saw to it for years that no arms bore U.S. markings so American involvement would not be suspected.
Gust Avrakotos was a player-outside-the-rules in the CIA just as Wilson was in Congress, and while they come across as Hawkeye and Trapper John from "Mash," their purpose was deadly serious.
Through Byzantine machinations with government and military bureaucracies, and heads of state, Charlie and Gust prevailed, finally getting Stinger missiles that could stop the deadly helicopters.
They helped change the course of history through this defeat of the Soviet state, as acknowledged by William Webster , then head of the CIA, when he turned the podium over to Charlie at the headquarters party the day the last of the Soviet troops left Afghanistan. Charlie thanked as many as he could name without bringing down official wrath on anyone's head. Unfortunately, through later misjudgments, some of those weapons are now being turned against us. But that is another story...
Underscoring this Washington story was a recent dinner given here (recorded earlier in this column) by then- Ambassador of Afghanistan Isaaq Shariyar to honor his friend Charlie Fawcett. Among the 60 guests, many of them longtime friends of Fawcett, was Charlie Wilson, who gave him a moving tribute.
And now the inevitable word from Hollywood about this hot property: luckily for the integrity of the movie-to-be, Tom Hanks has bought the book, and will play the role of Charlie Wilson. We asked Joanne if she knew who would play her. She didn't, but said, "I hope it could be Sharon Stone ."
One of the first major gatherings of the season was the party John and Giselle Theberge Jeppson gave honoring the new ambassador of the Argentine Republic, José Octavio Bordón and his wife Monica . Mrs. Bordón, a sociologist who was an Eisenhower Fellow along with her husband, said how happy they were to be back in Washington. Among his lengthy credits, this former governor of Mendoza province and minister of culture and education, taught political science at Georgetown University in 1992, while a research fellow at Wilson Center. His remarks, and Giselle's introduction, gave hope that with a new president in place, Argentina will recover from its economic woes. Among the guests, Mary and Mandy Ourisman , back from an extensive sail around Italy, Willee Lewis back from the Vineyard, where she launched her new "Snakes" anthology, Esther Coopersmith , back from seemingly everywhere, and the Ahmed Esfandiarys . Judy Esfandiary , who is up to her ears in November wedding plans for her daughter, had just returned from Palm Springs where she helped with the décor for the house the couple has bought there. And, the new ambassador of Ecuador, Raul Gangotena , who presented his credentials to the White House the same day as Ambassador Bordón, was there with wife Anne .
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