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03.09.10

How to Survive a Scandal

Eric Massa, Charlie Rangel and David Paterson all need advice on how to survive the hot seat. Mark McKinnon on the lessons of a master: the late “Good Time Charlie” Wilson.

As I watched New York Rep. Eric Massa resign his seat Monday, and as I think about Charlie Rangel, David Paterson and others who, in recent weeks, have had to deal with ethics investigations and “behavior” problems, I can’t help but be reminded of the recently deceased political Houdini of escape artists, Charlie Wilson. Too bad Wilson’s not around to call for advice, because he’d surely have some good counsel for his colleagues in hot water. Charlie knew about hot water. Very hot water. He was once accused of snorting cocaine with two strippers in a hot tub.

I’ve had the good fortune to work with a lot of fascinating candidates and officeholders during my professional career. Many were colorful. Many were characters. But none held a candle to “Good Time Charlie” Wilson. A rogue, a rascal and a dedicated patriot and servant of democracy, Wilson was one of a kind.

“I think the people of East Texas know they weren't electing a C.P.A.,” Wilson said, when charged with passing bad checks through the House bank. “It's not like molesting young girls or young boys.”

Before Charlie’s last campaign, he gathered his political team for lunch deep in East Texas. Once again, his candidacy was dogged by rumors of colorful sexual escapades and excessive substance abuse. And once again, he was Number One on the opposition’s hit list of “most vulnerable” incumbents.

Watch Glenn Beck and Eric Massa’s 5 Craziest MomentsOnce our burgers and fries were ordered, Charlie began the session in earnest: “Boys, I know you’re worried about this campaign. But, I just want to reassure you that I’ve changed my ways. I’ve met a good Christian girl. She plays the piano at church. She doesn’t drink or smoke or cuss. She’s got me under her spell. I love her madly. And we’ve decided we’re going to settle down and get married. Just as soon as she graduates from high school.”

Ba-dum-bum.

Benjamin Sarlin: Massa Case Puts Pelosi on Trial Off we went, shaking our heads and wondering how Charlie could possibly survive another election. But, like the hero in silent movies, he’d always figure a way to get off the tracks before getting hit by the train. He knew there are only two ways to run a political race: unopposed or scared. He was a ferocious campaigner. He loved making outrageous television commercials. And he was merciless with his opponents. By the time he finished with one campaign, Wilson managed to turn what initially appeared to be the perfect foil — a female candidate characterized as a fresh-faced, conservative, bible-toting, Army helicopter captain -- into an economic terrorist working for the Japanese.

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There are countless stories about Wilson. Here are a few:

• After running into a flag pole with his car while under the influence, he claimed he’d been inspired by a feeling of excessive patriotism.

• His office was famously populated by stunningly attractive and buxom blondes, dubbed “Charlie’s Angels”. When asked about his rationale, he responded: “You can teach ‘em to type, but you can’t teach ‘em to grow tits.”

• Wilson was always a solid vote on important women’s issues, and his female colleagues and feminists loved him, but he constantly tested their limits: He would commonly refer to Representative Pat Schroeder as “Baby Cakes”. When she complained that he wasn’t offering her the proper respect, he responded, “Excuse me: Congressman Baby Cakes.”

• He once dated a gorgeous Russian model. Because Wilson served on sensitive intelligence committees, some of the brass questioned his choice of paramours—wondering in this case whether the model in question could be a Russian spy. Wilson’s retort: “Gentlemen, the only secrets she gets from me are Victoria’s.”

• After escaping a federal investigation led by Rudy Giuliani that included accusations of cocaine use, Wilson threw a “Beat the Rap Party.” About the charges, Wilson said: “The girls had cocaine, and the music was loud. It was total happiness. And both of them had ten long, red fingernails with an endless supply of beautiful white powder. The feds spent a million bucks trying to figure out whether, when those fingernails passed under my nose, did I inhale or exhale, and I ain’t telling.”

• The congressional check-kiting scandal was vintage Wilson. In 1992, Wilson was identified by investigators as having passed 81 bad checks through the House bank. While others eluded the press and tried to deny guilt or responsibility, Wilson stepped up to the microphone and said: “Guilty as charged. But, I think the people of East Texas know they weren't electing a C.P.A. It's not like molesting young girls or young boys.”

Charlie was larger than life. And his real stories were better than fiction. Many who tell Charlie stories—like socialite Joanne Herring, who assisted Wilson with his Afghanistan effort—tend to embellish the record. Despite her suggestions that she and Charlie were romantically entangled and actually engaged, there is no evidence to support the claim, and Wilson flaty denied it.

The obvious question often asked about Wilson was: How did he get away with his behavior, especially given that his district was deep in the heart of heavily religious East Texas? The simple answer was: authenticity. Unlike so many in politics, Wilson never pretended to be a choir boy, never pretended to be anything other than what he was. He also worked his tail off and never forgot his constituents, whom he affectionately called “the home folks.” At a time when he was almost single-handedly forcing the Russian army out of Afghanistan, he was also racking up awards for the most responsive and effective constituent office in Congress. He drove around his district in a mobile office (which, of course, had a bed) to make sure anyone with a concern about their getting their Social Security check would get a quick answer.

Nobody out-partied Wilson. But no one outworked him, either.

Wilson spent the last ten years back of his life in declining health back in East Texas. He hung on long enough to see a terrific book written about his life that was made into a movie starring Tom Hanks. And he finally did actually settle down and married a wonderful woman, Barbara Alberstadt, who did what no other woman ever could: she kept Charlie sober, happy and down on the farm.

If Wilson were around to offer his colleagues advice today, here’s what he’d say: “Own up to your transgressions. Tell the truth and get some points for stating the obvious. People are fallible and human. Voters will forgive fallible. They won’t forgive phonies and liars.”

Members of Congress today could learn a lot of lessons from “Good Time Charlie” Wilson.

God’s wrastlin’ with the rascal now. And he’s surely entertained.

As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, corporations and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono.