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Congressional Cold Warrior Charlie Wilson dies at 76

Charlie Wilson, the hard-partying U.S. congressman whose exploits on behalf of the mujahideen resistance fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan formed the basis of the book and movie "Charlie Wilson's War," has died. He was 76.

He died Wednesday at a hospital in Lufkin, Texas, of cardiopulmonary arrest, according to a statement from Memorial Health System of East Texas. He received a heart transplant in 2007.

A Democrat representing an impoverished area in rural Texas, Wilson held his House seat from 1973 to 1996. He was "one of the most distinctive figures in the House," the Almanac of American Politics put it in the 1990s - "tall, almost spectrally thin, flamboyant, pleasure-loving, always ready with a wisecrack or quip, yet also serious-minded when he wants to be."

He homed in on what would become his signature cause in 1982, on a fact-finding trip to the Mideast. After visits to Israel and Lebanon, he tacked on a stop in Pakistan at the behest of a wealthy political backer, Joanne Herring.

Tom Hanks portrayed Wilson, and Julia Roberts played Herring, in the film version of "Charlie Wilson's War" (2007). The movie showed how Wilson's 1982 visit to Pakistan would become Herring's triumph.

A glamorous fixture of Houston society, Herring had years earlier swept Wilson "from the Bible Belt into her dazzling world of black-tie dinners, movie stars, countesses, Saudi princes and big-time Republican oil magnates," George Crile wrote in the 2003 book that was turned into the movie.

Herring became passionate about Pakistan, which she considered a bulwark against Soviet expansionism, especially after Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. Wilson was among the powerful friends she tried to recruit to Pakistan's defense.

On his 1982 visit, the congressman met with military leaders who detailed the Soviet occupation, the resulting refugee crisis and Pakistan's need for state-of-the-art radar for its U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets, according to Crile's account. Before returning home, Wilson made the first of what would become 14 visits to Peshawar, the center of the Afghan resistance.

"It began to dawn on me right then and there that I didn't know what was going to happen, but with my rage and their courage I knew we were going to kill some Russians," Wilson told Crile, who died in 2006.

Over the next several years, Wilson used his seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, and the secrecy of the U.S. covert-operations budget, to send billions of dollars in arms to the Afghan rebels. The arms ultimately included Stinger missiles, which the rebels used to shoot down theretofore unchallenged Soviet helicopters.

Soviet troops left Afghanistan in 1989 after 10 years of fighting. Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq, interviewed by "60 Minutes" about how the powerful Soviets had been defeated, answered: "All I can say is, Charlie did it."

Wilson was born on June 1, 1933, in Trinity, Texas, about 90 miles north of Houston. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1956 and served in the U.S. Navy until 1960, including some time on a destroyer searching for Soviet submarines.

Back in Texas, he ran a lumber business and won election to the state House of Representatives, then to the State Senate.

In 1972, he ran successfully for Congress. Wilson later outmaneuvered a fellow Texan to win a seat on the Appropriations Committee, which controls federal spending, and then secured a slot on its subcommittee on foreign operations.

A criminal probe into drug use on Capitol Hill led by Rudy Giuliani - at the time a little-known Justice Department attorney - ensnared Wilson for a time. Investigators looked into reports that Wilson had used cocaine in 1980, while in a hot tub in Las Vegas with two showgirls wearing only high heels.

Wilson held a "Beat the Rap Party" in 1983 when Giuliani's team gave up its efforts to charge him, The Washington Post reported.

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