Thursday, February 18, 2010


Carl Parker sez:

There is a saying--experience is a great teacher.  However, it is the only teacher that gives the exam first and then the lesson.  Charlie Wilson, who is now remembered as a master politician and legislative strategist, learned this early in his career in the Texas House of Representatives.

Charlie was a great pal of mine, as well as a great political ally.  We served together for several years in the Texas House of Representatives before Charlie went to the Senate and then to Congress.  We continued our friendship as I represented the nation of Liberia, and although not gathering enough notoriety to justify a movie, Charlie assisted me in tripling the United States’ aid to the nation of Liberia.  Liberia was key to American foreign policy, being our most friendly nation in West Africa.  It was also the location for the Voice of America for that quadrant of the world.

As a new member of the Texas House of Representatives, Charlie was a pupil in the school of experience early on; 1961 was a sea-change year for Texas government.  It was the first year Texas adopted a sales tax.  The issue was as hot as an issue gets in a legislative body.

Liberals condemned the sales tax as regressive, over burdensome on the poor and middle class, and basically an unfair tax on the people.   There had been several attempts at vetoes by the governor, and the issue faced a severely divided House of Representatives where the legislation had to originate. 

Charlie, of course, was among the loyal opposition vying a sales tax would pass only over their dead, political bodies.  After numerous attempts had failed on the floor in a called session on the subject, Charlie and his fellow liberals, met in caucus and decided the best strategy would be to introduce a tax bill themselves.   Traditionally in the House the author of a piece of legislation can have the final say on the fate of that bill.  Charlie’s group reasoned if they were the sponsors of the bill, and things didn’t go to suit them, they could simply pull the bill down and live to fight another day on that issue.  The bill was successfully ushered out of committee and reached the floor of the House where things took a rather disastrous turn.  It seems none of the amendments for the liberal group could pass.  The bill came to the floor decorated with all sorts of conservative ideas.  The bill went from a bill favored by Wilson and his fellow legislators to one they couldn’t stand.  Unfortunately, however, the House broke with tradition and when Charlie withdrew his support someone else simply stood up, took over sponsorship of the bill and passed Texas’ first sales tax.  Ironically enough, Texas’ first sales tax ended up bearing the name of Charlie Wilson of Lufkin, one of its most avid opponents.  In later years, Charlie began to see the humor in it and was not so nonplused when they rightly accused him of being the Texas sponsor of the worst tax measure of several generations.

Charlie’s good nature and humor saw him through several crises in his political career.  I remember on one occasion when Charlie was unfortunately charged with driving while intoxicated in Austin, Texas, he persuaded the authorities that he in fact was impaired because of taking prescription drugs to treat the symptoms of the flu.  The prosecutor also had a weird sense of humor and suggested he would dismiss the driving while intoxicated charge if Charlie would agree to plead guilty of driving under the influence of narcotics.  When some of us suggested that it seemed it was worse to have admitted to driving while having taken narcotics than consuming alcohol, Charlie replied, “It’s not in East Texas!” 

Charlie was well aware of the traits of his Bible-belt constituents in the Lufkin area.  He once confided in me the voters in his district were divided into two religious groups: Half were white, Southern Baptist, the other half were black Southern Baptist.

While his quick wit, humor and good nature saw him through many tough times, the experiences such as the one where he got “rookie dooed” into being the sponsor of the state’s first sales tax taught him lessons he never forgot.  They stood him in good stead as he became one of the premiere legislative strategists, politicians, and ultimately statesman in the history of the United States Congress.

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