The Brand Called Charlie: Thoughts on the Passing of Texan Charlie Wilson

He understood regular folks, even while he led a life that would leave many of his constituents wide-eyed with shock.

[Looking for Charlie Wilson’s TV Campaign Spots?]

Former Texas Congressman Charles Wilson (District 2) passed away today. I heard the news from Kerry Tate, who wrote to ask if I wanted to drive to his funeral together.

Many people knew Charlie personally much better than me, and millions more know of him thanks to a captivating book entitled Charlie Wilson’s War by George Crile, which was turned into the movie of the same name starring Tom Hanks as the congressman. I can’t verify every detail of Crile’s account, but I can testify to the accuracy of his portrayal of the man, his characteristics and persona. The book fascinated me, because it gave context to many of my personal encounters over the years with Charlie.

I first met Congressman Wilson as a young television director working for KTRE-TV, channel 9, in Lufkin, Texas, the home of Charlie’s district office. I don’t know the details, but apparently he wanted our help producing a couple of inexpensive TV commercials for his campaign. I was a nobody, and certainly not involved in politics, and I’m sure the congressman barely knew I was involved in writing and directing the commercials. I remember being very concerned that the congressman would be happy with the commercials, after all most of our work was for local car dealers and banks. This seemed Big Time to us.

As usual, Charlie won the election, and we went back to working on the car ads, but during the next two years I left KTRE and launched a small advertising agency in Lufkin (and that’s a whole story of its own). Two years later it was campaign time again, and I went calling on the congressman to see if my little firm could handle his advertising. To my pleasure and surprise, I walked out of his door with the account. He was the most famous client I’d ever dreamed of capturing!

I don’t know why Charlie took a chance on me, but I was grateful he did. That job gave me a beginning, and I’ll always remember him fondly for that. Over the next years and several campaigns I wrote, directed and produced most of his television commercials, brochures, bumper stickers, etc. (Ed Wernli, who died many years ago, was the cinematographer and co-director.)

To say I wrote his commercials doesn’t give enough credit to Charlie’s role in his own campaign materials. Our process would generally begin with a meeting at his house in Lufkin (the one with the wall of guns and missile launchers in the foyer), a few words of greeting, “Hey Dave, what have you been up to? Let me tell you what I’ve been thinking about.” Charlie would then lay out his vision for the campaign, often with fairly specific details on particular things he wanted to say, or visual images he wanted to present. I would then go away and craft a few scripts, adding some of my own ideas, but always keeping a few of Charlie’s most vivid ideas in the mix.

Over the years, Charlie got a big kick out of telling me that he would show his TV spots to his fellow politicians in D.C. and they would be amazed (and perhaps aghast) at the on-camera shenanigans he pulled off during his several winning campaigns. Truly, I don’t believe many politicians could pull off, at least with a straight face, some of Charlie’s more outlandish efforts on camera. A few samples are posted here, but that is just a slice of the cornucopia of situations we created in the hope to win votes. Charlie’s TV spots were famous for:

  • Flags, lots of American flags, usually at least one flying in the breeze behind him. One of his more notable spots ended with such a shot, as Charlie intoned “The flag…the flag…the flag.”
  • No real call to action. Amazingly, many of Charlie’s television spots barely acknowledged he was running for office. One spot was created with the simple direction to “make something nice about the beauty of living in East Texas.”
  • Soviet villians. It was nearing the end of the Cold War, but Congressman Wilson (if you read the book or saw the movie this is no surprise) was avidly anti-Soviet Union, and he was not above dragging the fight against communism across the sea to the shores of the Neches River.
  • Grateful constituents. Every campaign we had at least one commercial featuring constituents who were indebted to the congressman for straightening out some problem with Social Security, or Veteran’s benefits. The congressman had a Foretravel mobile home outfitted as a mobile office, so his staff could travel around the district dealing with such issues. Campaign time, we always had a list of volunteers to appear on television.

I know this sounds contrived, but I truly think Charlie enjoyed helping out his constituents. He understood regular folks, even while he led a life that would leave many of his constituents wide-eyed with shock. Cocaine investigations, hit-and-run accidents, every campaign there would be some major image crisis that would have to be calmed. And most often, Charlie would have an idea for a TV spot to fit the moment.

I’ll never forget shooting a scene with Charlie in front of his childhood church. During a pause in the action a car pulled up, an older man stuck his head out the window and laughed in mock astonishment, “Is that Charlie Wilson on the steps of a church?” Despite his reputation as Good Time Charlie, the congressman seemed to always get a pass from his rather conservative district. He was on the house appropriations committee, a military hawk, and he took good care of his constituents. That was enough for most.

I could write a companion book to Charlie Wilson’s War about my experiences with Charlie Wilson’s Campaign. The opportunity to travel around the campaign trail with him (in his RV campaign headquarters, at times filling helium balloons in the back bedroom) was an eye-opening experience I will never forget. If you and I ever cross paths you can ask me to recount my memories of:

  • Traveling through Vidor at dusk with the campaign RV packed full with African-American campaign volunteers, who grew seriously worried about what might happen if we ran out of gas before making it to the city limits.
  • Riding back from Austin with Charlie in a small private plane. A fast approaching storm bounced us around until my stomach was churning, but Charlie slept like a baby the whole way, much to my annoyance.
  • Floating down the Neches River in two canoes, a film crew in one, and Charlie with his AK-47 (a prop for a TV spot) in the other. I kept worrying we would surprise a backwoods resident and end up with a shotgun blast in the stomach!
  • Visiting one of Charlie’s constituents in the Pineywoods to videotape an on-camera testimonial. The man came out of his trailer wearing a cap that read “Go to Hell!” After a wardrobe change we started filming, and he began, “Senator Wilson is a fine congressman.” Okay cut, Charlie is a congressman, not a senator. Can we try that again? “Senator, congressman Wilson is a fine congressman.” Cut! Nice try, let’s do it again, but remember, he’s a congressman, not a senator. (I kid you not, this went on for 20 minutes.) “Senator Wilson, he’s a congressman, President Wilson is a fine man.” That’s great, it’s a wrap, thank you sir. [Sigh]

Oh my, such a trip. Thanks for the ride Charlie. RIP.

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9 thoughts on “The Brand Called Charlie: Thoughts on the Passing of Texan Charlie Wilson”

  1. I’ve always remembered the “Closer to thee” spot that you did while we worked together at FL&G. It is still the best political ad I’ve ever seen…brilliant work. And you should definitely write that book.

  2. Unfortunately Jay, I don’t have the patience for a book. I’m more suited to Twitter, I live my life in 140-character bursts!

    Good to hear from you.

  3. Hi Dave,

    Nice article. I remember when you handed me an assignment to write a radio spot for Charlie, back at Fellers. I asked what I was supposed to write it about and was told: It doesn’t matter; Charlie always wins. Little did I know…but when the movie came out about him, it got me wondering, hey…

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I do think Charlie was remarkable, and I’m grateful to have worked with him. I didn’t really fully appreciate the significance of it until much later.

  4. Classic work without compare, Dave Wenger. Geez, you two were brave. Imagine pollsters allowing this to air today. You captured the Congressman in perfect pitch.
    Great memories–when Charlie wasn’t making news, he was making great political advertising with you.

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