This week saw the deaths of two congressmen whose lives were bound together in representing much of the way the U.S. House used to operate—and sometimes still does.
Charlie Wilson was a Texas Democrat who in the 1980s teamed up with other Cold Warriors to funnel arms to the Afghan rebels, humiliating the Soviet Union and hastening its end. His frequent collaborator, Democrat John Murtha of Pennsylvania, was a senior member of the defense subcommittee that oversaw CIA covert operations.
Wilson was a fixer and a carousing libertine. But he promised constituents that if caught in a scandal, "I won't blame booze and I won't suddenly find Jesus." In 1981 he visited refugee camps in Pakistan and saw children maimed by explosives disguised as toys. "I decided to grab the commie sons o' bitches by the throat," he told me in 2006.
President Ronald Reagan was then signing top-secret directives to use covert action to weaken the Soviets. Wilson used his perch on a House subcommittee to expand covert aid to the Afghans to $1 billion a year. House Speaker Tip O'Neill and Murtha gave him a long leash.
Mr. Wilson told me in that same conversation in 2006 that the victory was only possible "because there was no partisanship or damaging leaks." He believed that nothing like the Afghan operation could survive today.
But the secrecy and skullduggery that Wilson said served the country well had a flip side. When Murtha died he had become a symbol of suspect pork-barrel projects linked to campaign contributions. Last May, he dismissed complaints by telling reporters, "If I'm corrupt, it's because I take care of my district."
The FBI would subsequently raid the offices of PMA Group, a lobbying shop founded by a former Murtha aide, and two defense contractors located in his district.
In 2006, after Democrats won control of the House, many members were aghast that Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushed Murtha for Majority Leader. He lost to Steny Hoyer after good government groups tied him to a bipartisan culture of corruption in the House.
One damming piece of evidence came from a 2003 book by George Crile, a producer for CBS's "60 Minutes," who used Wilson as his major source to tell the Afghan story. His book, "Charlie Wilson's War," later inspired a movie of the same name, starring Tom Hanks. But it also revealed how in 1981 Murtha escaped punishment for his role in the Abscam scandal.
Murtha was named an unindicted co-conspirator in Abscam, an FBI sting operation in which agents offered members of Congress bribes. A tape showed Murtha describing "the secret" of how a public official can take a bribe and get away with it. He told the undercover agents he was turning them down for now: "You know, you made an offer. . . . After we've done some business, well, then I might change my mind." E. Barrett Prettyman Jr., the special prosecutor appointed by House Ethics Committee, was building a complaint against Murtha; he was also probing links between Abscam and O'Neill's office.
That prompted O'Neill to shut down the probe. According to Crile's book, O'Neill called Wilson into his office and said he wanted him to join the Ethics Committee. Wilson had been pestering him to get a lifetime seat on the board of the Kennedy Center. "It's the best perk in town," Wilson told Crile. O'Neill would appoint Wilson, but he'd have to join the Ethics Committee to take care of Murtha.
Wilson didn't need any prodding: "He was a happy warrior as he raced to the rescue of his imperiled friend John Murtha," Crile wrote. "Before Prettyman could fully deploy his investigators to move on the Murtha case, he was informed that the committee had concluded there was no justification for an investigation."
Mr. Prettyman was furious, resigning his post the same afternoon the committee voted to clear Mr. Murtha. Crile's book notes "a teary Murtha had confided to a colleague that Wilson's effort had saved his life."
When I called Wilson in 2006 to ask if the Crile account was accurate, he reluctantly confirmed that it was. He also noted "I hope nothing will hurt" Murtha's bid to become majority leader.
Charlie Wilson was right that backroom deals on foreign policy like the one on Stinger missiles couldn't happen today. But he said there was still room in Congress for wheeler-dealers when it comes to spending, although public pushback against earmarks and the kind of instant Internet revelations about deal making that are now fueling opposition to ObamaCare was shrinking that space.
He mused: "It's not a bad thing, times change and Congress will just have to adapt."
GOOD INTERVIEW WITH CHARLIE WILSON ON THIS LINK: