Charles Nesbitt (Charlie) Wilson, Texas state representative, Texas state senator, and United States representative, was born on June 1, 1933, in Trinity, Texas. He was the son of Charles Edwin Wilson and Wilmuth (Nesbitt) Wilson. He attended local schools and graduated from Trinity High School in 1951. While a student at Sam Houston State Teachers College (now Sam Houston State University), he received an appointment to the United States Naval Academy and graduated from the Academy in 1956.
Wilson recalled that he first became interested in politics when his dog died in 1946. A neighbor, who happened to be a local elected official, was upset that Wilson's dog had apparently soiled his garden and had put finely-grained glass into the dog's food to kill it. Wilson, in an act of revenge, doused his neighbor's yard in gasoline and set it on fire. Wilson then borrowed his family's car, drove voters to the polls, and told them that while he didn't want to tell them how to vote, they should know that this particular local official had killed his dog. The man who killed Wilson's dog lost the election. Wilson confronted the man and suggested that he shouldn't be harming anyone else's dogs.
While in the United States Navy from 1956 to 1960, Wilson served on a destroyer and later as a staff officer at the Pentagon. He achieved the rank of lieutenant. It was during his Pentagon service that Wilson volunteered for the presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy and decided himself to seek elected office as a Democrat to the Texas House of Representatives from his East Texas district. His family and friends campaigned hard for Wilson, who won the election and took office in 1961. As a state representative, Wilson was the sponsor of the original 2 percent sales tax. Wilson was elected to the Texas Senate in 1966 and served until 1972, when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from the Second Congressional District, which was centered around Lufkin and much of East Texas.
Wilson was often called "Good Time Charlie." Divorced for much of his political career, he enjoyed the company of attractive women and was known to enjoy his share of alcohol. He was also at one time investigated for cocaine use by then United States Attorney Rudy Giuliani, later the mayor of New York City. Yet he won a spot on the powerful House Committee on Appropriations and hired a staff that earned respect for attention to constituent issues with Social Security, Veterans Administration benefits, and other federal government services. His local accomplishments included the establishment of the Big Thicket Preserve and a United States Veterans Administration clinic in Lufkin, which today bears his name.
On a larger scale, Wilson is best remembered for his leadership in securing funding and support for the resistance to the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Working with CIA agent Gust Avrakatos, Houston socialite Joanne Herring, his congressional colleagues, and the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush presidential administrations, Wilson secured U.S. government funding for supplies and weapons used to fight the Soviet Army. The efforts were successful, and the Soviet Army withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989.
Wilson's work on this issue was chronicled by CBS News on its 60 Minutes program. The CBS News producer of that story, George Crile, conducted further research on the story with Wilson's support, and wrote a book, Charlie Wilson's War. The book was the basis for a 2007 movie of the same name. The actor Tom Hanks portrayed Wilson. In a television interview, Wilson said he loved the movie and thought it was loyal to Crile's book. However, a friend and former colleague said the book and movie did Wilson a disservice by unfairly characterizing Wilson as a playboy.
Wilson retired from Congress in October 1996 and became a lobbyist for Pakistan before retiring to Lufkin. He donated his congressional papers to Stephen F. Austin State University. In 1999 he married Barbara Alberstadt; this was his second marriage. Wilson received a heart transplant in 2007 and continued to follow the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he expressed concerns about events in that region. In July 2009 the University of Texas System Board of Regents established the Charles N. Wilson Chair in Pakistan Studies, which encourages research in the geo-political importance of Pakistan, as well as its culture, history, and literature.
Wilson died in Lufkin on February 10, 2010, at the age of seventy-six. He was survived by his wife Barbara, his sister Sharon Allison, and her family. Wilson was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.