Interviewer's Name: M. Scott Sosebee and Paul J. P. Sandul
Interview Date and Location: The interview was conducted in the summer of 2011 in the office of the Southeast Texas Regional Planning Commission in Beaumont Texas.
Context Notes: Interview and transcription completed in conjunction with the Charlie Wilson Oral History Project at Stephen F. Austin State University, Nacogdoches, Texas (Spring 2011).
Throughout the interview Sosebee and Davis laughs about several stories about working for Charlie Wilson. As the interview wraps up, Sandul enters the conversation and Davis keeps the laughter going by telling another story about Wilson.
Tapes and Interview Record: The original recordings of the interview and a full transcript are held by the East Texas Research Center, R. W. Steen Library, Stephen F. Austin State University, Nacogdoches, Texas.
Transcription Notes: The policy of the Charlie Wilson Oral History Project has been to eliminate false starts and crutch words from transcriptions when determined not to affect the meaning and flow of the spoken word. Obviously, and admittedly, this is a subjective endeavor and all care was taken to maintain the integrity of the interview.
The interviewers M. Scott Sosebee and Paul J. P. Sandul are identified as SOSEBEE and SANDUL, respectively. Shaun Davis is identified as DAVIS.
SOSEBEE: Okay. We are in Beaumont at the say the Southeast Texas
DAVIS: Southeast Texas Regional Planning Commission.
DAVIS: It's a very impressive place.
SOSEBEE: It does. It is an impressive place I hear. I am Scott Sosebee and I will be conducting the interview today of this Charlie Wilson Oral History Project. We are with Shaun Davis who was the District Office Chief. Is that the title?
DAVIS: District Director.
SOSEBEE: District Director for Charlie Wilson, the last one, correct, . . . that he had for his career? Shaun, thank you for agreeing to sit down and talk with [us] about Charlie, and your experiences, and your ideas with him. But before we get to Charlie, tell us about yourself. Tell us where you're from, your background, how you met Charlie, and then perhaps how you came into this position . . .
DAVIS: I'll do my best to keep that within the hour we've got here, but I'm actually from Southeast Texas. I'm from this area. Both my parents, my family, we're all from Southeast Texas. I wound up in East Texas. I took a job with a little small television station there: KTRE T.V.
SOSEBEE: Still watch it [Sosebee laughs].
DAVIS: Went up there to take that job and never been to East Texas. All my life whenever we went to the country from here, we went to the beach. So, I didn't even realize there was all those beautiful woods, lakes, and all that up there so I fell in love with the place. I was newly married. Got up there and lived in Nacogdoches, I had a few different jobs there. I kept the T.V. job for about a year and then I went to work for the Texas Forest Service. I was Forest Ranger, I was a firefighter, I was a musician. Nacogdoches was a great place in the late seventies, early eighties, and I'm sure it still is. But . . . through my work at the television station and as a musician, that's how I met Charlie. Some friends of mine from the T.V. station started their own advertising agency and film production company. And I wrote all their background music and jingles, and that sort of thing for their commercials. And, 1984, they came to me and they said, "Hey . . . we got this contract to do this campaign commercial for this congressman, a local congressman." I said, "Okay, well that's cool." "Here we have some video tape, take this video tape. We need some background music." And it was, so, I took it home to the V.C.R.
SOSEBEE: What election year was this maybe?
DAVIS: That was 1984.
DAVIS: Yeah, Jerry Johnson was his opponent from Nacogdoches. He's a great guy. So I took it home, put it in the V.C.R. and I started watching this thing and I said, "My God, who is this guy?" And, I mean, he was just tall and straight and just, you know, cocky and just awesome, and I wasn't political at all. I was a musician. You know I think I may have voted for Jimmy Carter and that's it, you know. So, . . . anyway, I wrote the background music and all that, and I didn't get to meet Charlie during that time but subsequently, as time went by, next campaign came up so they say, "Hey we got the contract again for these commercials, same guy." Okay, so once again I wrote the music, this time it was much more extensive, 1986. And this time, because in '84, I was just like, I said just getting to know him, but I started paying attention to him in '84, and I was intrigued that there was so much scandal around that time, I just, you couldn't help but pay attention to the stories, you know. I was twenty-eight, twenty-nine years old, and so, anyway, I said yes I want to do the music, I'm in, so we did the spots, did the music. This time I said, "I want to go with you when you show the spots to this Charlie Wilson guy. You know I want to meet him in person, I mean I seen him in shooting the campaign spots and all that." And I wanted to go to his house because I heard he had an awesome bachelor pad [laughter]. So anyway, went, met him, we just hit it off immediately. He's tall, six-four, six-five. I'm six-eight, six-nine, so we just kind of hit it off right away. Right after . . . he accepted all the campaign commercials and all that, right after that, a day or two, somebody from his staff, I ran into them and they say, "Yeah, we lost our campaign bus driver and we just don't know what we are going to do, Charlie's making all of us drive the bus and none of us know how to drive that monster." I said, "Well, I have a couple of weeks of vacation, I can take off. I'll drive it for you until you can find somebody." And this person, one of his many beautiful staffers, she said "You'll do that?" I said absolutely. But once I met these folks I knew that that was just something I wanted to do. I wanted to be around that environment, that energy, and so I started driving this campaign bus because I can drive anything [laughter]. So, drove the campaign bus and after I had been driving a couple of weeks, Charlie asked me if I wanted to come on staff and that started my career and I was certainly a ship looking for a rudder in my life up to that point.
SOSEBEE: What was your first job with him?
DAVIS: I was called a district assistant.
SOSEBEE: So what did you have to do?
DAVIS: Everybody in Charlie's office was a case worker. Don't matter what your title was, even the guy, the district director, which I eventually became, everybody did case work because in Charlie's office that's what we did. And we took great pride in helping people. We sought them out. We tried to help folks with social security, veteran's affairs, I.R.S., whatever it was, we prided ourselves on that work. So I started out as a district assistant driving the bus, still . . . learning how to type [laughter]. I had no office skills . . . zero. Literally. And that was back in the day when they, of course, way before computers, you typed everything on carbon paper. So here I was, didn't know how to type, I was trying to type letters to constituents, you know, you couldn't read the carbon paper after I got through. But so I would write everything out long hand on these tablets, you know, and sit here and try. But anyway, I just got the opportunity to learn how to work in an office, to interact with people. I was a musician, but Charlie, with me, as he did with most everybody, he could see things in people you know. Potential, he just had this huge heart. All of us in the district office were, we were all different, but we had a similar [drive]. First of all, we were completely committed to Charlie and we loved him and we wanted to fulfill his mission and vision and all of that. But it wasn't the standard thing of, well, I went to this college and got my political science degree and wanted to work for a congressman. We all came from these strange backgrounds but we all loved to work with people.
SOSEBEE: You think Charlie did this on purpose because that's the first time we [the Charlie Wilson Oral History Project] heard that? When he assembled people to work for him it wasn't this, "Okay I'm going to," like you said, went to this school, and, "I'm going to pick these people." I guess what I mean, a traditional way of putting together a staff, he didn't follow that. There's got to be a method to his madness. What do you think that was?
DAVIS: Peyton Walters told me one time; Peyton, of course, was our beloved leader who was the district director before I was and wound up being . . . chief of staff, Polk County judge. Peyton told me once I was there for a little bit, he says, "What you will notice as you work here for a while and you interact with other congressional offices and their staff, the staff always reflects the boss. Just far night." He said, "You'll just see it." And I'll be, he was so right. So, all, we were a collection of different "Charlies," kind of. Different parts of his personality I think. I mean there were very serious people, you know, somewhat intellectual. But there were also, you know, everybody liked to have a good time, but we were very, very serious about our work and we all loved East Texas and I loved working with East Texans.
SOSEBEE: Tell us about the case work that you did. . . . I mean, Charlie, of course we have heard from many people . . . that you took care of the homefolks. So what were some of the typical cases that you worked on?
DAVIS: Primarily in an area like East Texas we had what they called Deep East Texas, nineteen counties and it was very, very rural. The two population centers . . . [were] Lufkin and Orange. Okay? Those were the big cities in the district so that tells you that it was very rural. So folks didn't have access to information or resources like you would if you lived in the big city of Beaumont, you know, you just know where things are and where to go to get help. That's not necessarily true at that time. It was not true in Deep East Texas. So, primarily, our work was helping folks who needed their benefits. Needed their benefits, primarily, social security; disability was at least half of the work we did. Veterans Affairs folks that had been trying for years to work their way through the bureaucracy, to get the benefits that they earned and deserved, but just couldn't make it through the bureaucracy. It got to be a real point of pride for all of us to see how we could shepherd these things through the bureaucracy. And we could tell if someone was really deserving or if they were trying to work the system. We just got good. We were good at it. Plus, one of the things that I carried with me throughout my career since then, and it's true for everybody, and it's all about relationship, so we would, we made sure we had the best relationships possible with our contacts in the different agencies so that we could call those agencies and say, "Hey, you know, Mrs. Jones is the real deal. She's not trying to work it. This is real." And we just built that trust and that back and forth that allowed us to be really effective because the people that run the government are the people in those offices who are approving or denying or moving it on to the next phase. Those are the people that make the government work. Now there are lots of people like myself these days who take credit for all that good stuff that happens but there are people in those trenches making it happen. Those were the people that were our friends.
SOSEBEE: And he demanded that from his staff? I mean, this was your number one job. You knew that from the beginning?
DAVIS: You see, never, ever, ever, "I demand." It was like a source of pride, you know, it was just you understood it when you went to work there. This is what we do, you know, this is what we do. And of course people out in the communities, you know, they would always, it was kind of the running joke that you know Charlie can do what he wants. This is what keeps him in office is that he cares about the homefolk.
SOSEBEE: You think that was the main [reason]? Because, I mean . . . there was some questions sometimes and some scandals about some things. But also, I mean, he's particularly, and you're later in his career, he's a Democrat in a region that is very conservative, that is turning Republican.
SOSEBEE: Is that what kept his loyalty to the voters and why he stayed in office so long?
DAVIS: Oh, I don't know. It was everything. It was everything. . . . His office had a reputation for answering and returning every single phone call, every single letter, and giving a general effort to solve things. But it was also the fact that this guy was just brilliant, I mean, and he was real. We all were living vicariously through him [laughter]. It was everything. He was such a unique phenomenon, and he really was. I mean, there are some people in this world and in your life time that are just exceptional. There just different from the rest of us and he was one. He was one in that he just had this ability to be so naturally caring, really, really smart, and really, really funny.
SOSEBEE: What was he like to work for?
DAVIS: I've been trying to recreate that since 1996.
SOSEBEE: You hear . . . the horror stories, for example, of [President] Lyndon Johnson who scared his staff to death. You see other things. . . You talk about certain other people. . . . I remember . . . somebody talking about [how] they worked for Howard Baker [former Senate Majority Leader, Republican U.S. Senator from Tennessee, White House Chief of Staff for Ronald Reagan, and a former United States Ambassador to Japan]. That it was almost this flossy-fair hands off. He didn't even really direct his staff. But what was he [Charlie Wilson] like?
DAVIS: Yeah, it was the opposite of that. It was like he was just the captain of the team that everybody really loved and respected and would take a bullet for, you know, . . . because he didn't sweat the mundane. I don't want to say he didn't sweat the small stuff, because he did. He paid attention to small stuff in peoples lives, but he didn't sweat all the rules [laughter]. So we had a very organized operation; very dedicated staff. But mainly all that dedication of, and commitment, was there because of all the care he gave to each of us as individuals. . . . I was one of the only married folks on staff. I was young, had young family. Well, he knew about them, he asked about them. I can remember being on the campaign trail with him and we're going down the road and he asked me-I had my youngest son, Hunter, [he] was in T-ball at the time, but we were always running and always going-and we're on the bus and Charlie asked, "Well what's ole Hunter up too?" And I say, "Well he's, actually he's at a T-ball all-star tournament today." "Really where is it?" [Charlie asked]. I say, "Well, it's in Corrigan." [Charlie says,] "We're going through there, let's go." We weren't really going through there but we diverted. And one of my favorite photographs, that I still have, of all time is-we pulled up in that T-ball all-star tournament in that giant Ford travel motor home and we all piled out and Charlie piled right in the middle of all those parents and my son was warming up on the field and [once] he saw Charlie he didn't worry about what was on the field. He came out to hug Charlie. Charlie squatted down and took his picture with Hunter with his old cap all crooked and everything. Great photograph. But that's the kind of thing; those little personal touches will make you dedicate yourself more.
SOSEBEE: And it was that, all of that was absolutely genuine, and that's the feeling we've gotten from this that he . . . Often I say it seems he really loved being a Congressman.
DAVIS: Yeah, and he loved playing Charlie Wilson too. I don't mean it wasn't genuine and sincere. But he liked [it], he knew his role with people, you know, and how, as I said earlier, how a lot of us kind of live vicariously through him. Well he was aware of that. He was aware that he was from this rural district in Texas, but was doing all these awesome cosmopolitan things, with all these beautiful girlfriends, and the Kennedy Center, and just all of these cool things; that he just dressed so cool, you know [laughter]. He was aware of that so he liked to play that for folks because that's what . . .
SOSEBEE: Yeah, how much . . .
DAVIS: But it was completely genuine.
SOSEBEE: How much? Genuine for sure. But also planned? How much would you say-what's the right word-that his "persona" was constructed intentionally? And how much was it actually Charlie Wilson?
DAVIS: Probably the same as you and I. What do we present to the world, you know. And what is it that we keep for ourselves. He knew he was a public figure. His whole life was based on, the way he said things, the way he approached things. But it was all him, you know. Whatever he chose to show, it was all real.
SOSEBEE: Paul [i.e., Paul J. P.
SANDUL:, Director of the Charlie Wilson Oral History Project] and I have talked about this. In some of these interviews that we have done . . . he's [i.e., Charlie Wilson] in a very unique district [the 2nd Congressional District, while changing throughout Wilson's tenure as Representative, typically encompassed Nacogdoches south to Jasper, i.e., rural Deep East Texas]. I mean, let's be totally honest here, East Texas is a pretty unique place and it has a unique . . .
DAVIS: Especially if you are not from there. Really. You really notice the uniqueness of it.
SOSEBEE: So none of us are from there and it takes a while to be accepted. It's a unique constituency with unique political ideas. How much of Charlie's image was important to the relationship for him to be elected, but also to make a connection with that constituency?
DAVIS: Huge, huge part. Huge part. But again it wasn't-"constructed" is probably not the right word-but certainly his whole "persona" developed through the years from what I understand. Of course I wasn't with him when he was a [Texas] State Senator and all that, but from being known as the "Liberal from Lufkin" to becoming the "Giant Hawk," you know, the "Hawk of Crooked Creek," or whatever.
SOSEBEE: And that's an interesting point that I think we should go into go. I mean, that is the moniker . . . the "Liberal from Lufkin." Now a lot of that came from early in his career, maybe, but what was Charlie political? If you could actually describe his actual political philosophy, what was it, how would you do it?
DAVIS: I'll tell you what he told me when I asked him that question. He said, "I'm for guns and butter" [laughter]. So, he was both. And his district allowed him to be both.
SOSEBEE: How so?
DAVIS: Because, the makeup that I've observed of East Texas, having lived there and worked for twenty, twenty-five years, and still work in there, is the care about the country, care about patriotism, they care about freedom, you know, "Don't Tread On Me" even, and they care that you keep your word and on all those things. He was 100 per cent, you know, because he wasn't phony, you know. He knew he was a rascal sometimes, and scoundrel sometimes, but everybody up there [East Texas], they knew that they had been that way too from time to time and that didn't make them a bad person and as long as you weren't trying to hide it or phony up, which is something I don't think he had to ever figure out. That was just in it, you know, that he just was what he was and he was confident and comfortable with it and, but truth is, he was just East Texas. He could run with every crowd on the planet. But who he was, I believe, he was still from East Texas, from Trinity. He understood that, you know. He knew he had to do more, and be more, to get things done that he wanted to get done. But his core was Trinity, Texas.
SOSEBEE: So is this is what helped him? . . . Part of why he gets the moniker the Liberal from Lufkin, because even way back, even in the State Senate, he let it be known that he was somebody that was going to come down on the Left of civil rights, for example. He was also, and Orange being part of the district helps in this, he was a fairly, I wouldn't say dogmatic, but at least a strong supporter of organized labor. . . . Those are two things that sometimes don't fit with rural East Texas too well. But he was able to balance that. So what's the essence of how he could do that?
DAVIS: First of all we got to remember that this political environment that we are living in now didn't always exist. Okay? And this moniker, as we call it now of "liberal," wasn't a dirty word all the time. Its context and usage has changed quite a bit. But Charlie, I'm certain was very proud of the moniker "Liberal from Lufkin" because, truly, in a kind of, I don't know how to say this, but just kind of, in a man's man way, he cared about the guy who was trying to make it. . . . That's why he was so pro-union, that's why he fought for, as he said, those old folks sitting on their porch waiting to die. Back before we had Social Security and Medicare. Because he knew, he knew those people, and he knew that they were good people. They didn't have access to all the information, and, as I said, resources that maybe some others did in different parts of the state and country. He liked the fact that they liked him and that he hadn't forgot about them even though he knew a lot of them had access to a lot of stuff that others of us didn't. But he loved the underdog, you know. He just loved the underdog and sticking it to the man [laughter]. But in a, you know, in an honorable kind of way like. You know, I wouldn't say that everything we did to stick it to the man was honorable [laughter,] but, you know, in a, like, bring it on kind of way.
SOSEBEE: That's a great answer. I've been trying to get somebody to give me that answer for months now [laughter]. That's the answer I been looking for a long time. I think that explains it very well. I've asked this of a number of people . . . and this is going to have to do it as we been talking about some personal and political. If you had to come up with, I don't know, five or six adjectives or short descriptive phrases to describe Charlie Wilson, which would you use?
DAVIS: Ah man!
SOSEBEE: I know that's one of those questions.
DAVIS: I hate those Barbara Walters questions. Not that you have any resemblance whatsoever. Golly. I am just going to say things that come to mind, to me, when I think of Charlie, is fairness. This will all sound a little weird, equality, humor, the guy was just fun [laughter]. I mean, just fun, and just had this incredible wit and this, he liked, he was traditional, but he was not, he did not consider himself part of the establishment. So I would say, humor, anti-establishment, hero for his neighbors in need, he was there for them, he was there for his constituents, he was there for his staff in the same way. Yeah, just, but mostly, just enjoy what you do. You can be serious, [but] don't take yourself so seriously. Take the job seriously. That was embedded in all of us.
SOSEBEE: That was an esoteric question but you answered it well. What about issues? . . . We talked about home, but I mean national issues? What were most important for him?
DAVIS: Always gun rights. Second Amendment. Again, understanding his constituents, but that was also his firmly held belief. Now he would say from time to time, you know, "Violate the First Amendment, by God never the Second." He believed in that because that was "live free or die" idiom, you know, that was held in East Texas; big time. So gun rights, Social Security, anything having to do with senior citizens, that was his deal. Call them his "Gray Army." He took care of senior citizens. Did his best to take care of poor people and, of course above-not above all else but probably at the top of that priority list-was national defense. He was just a true anti-establishment patriot. Not a Tea Party patriot or whatever patriot is, you know, is attached to these days. He was in his heart a patriot of the country.
SOSEBEE: Do you think . . . you obviously knew him later in his career and you went to work for him in the later stages of it at least, but you still knew people . . . that known him for a long time, and you could still get the sense, do you think he changed some as he was in Congress?
DAVIS: Oh . . .
SOSEBEE: Did he ever get cynical?
DAVIS: Probably. Absolutely not! No he didn't. He could see things changing. He knew it was his time. When he was ready to go, he knew it was his time. And he knew it just wasn't going to be much fun. But changing, I think maybe if there was a change, and I got there, I came on the scene in '85, '86, right there, so I think I was at the beginning of if there was a change. I think I was kind of right there on the cutting edge of that, where he was starting to really come in to his own, and I don't want this to sound pretentious, but for him he started to understand what he could really accomplish. What he could do with his power. And he had great committee assignments [e.g., House Appropriations]. And he knew about people. And that includes his colleagues and how to get things done. So it seemed to me, just based on my own observation, that he started to understand what he could really get done and he started, we really started, doing a lot of small business work. How could our little machine shops out in Chester, Texas, how could they, could Charlie introduce them to some defense contractors, maybe to get some contracts going? We really started to focus on business development. Things like that. Of course he just came into his own defense appropriations with the Afghan [war with the Soviet Union]. That just became, it just crystalized everything. I believe, for him, and gave him, that focus. I don't know if it was missing or not before but I know that it certainly was a focus for him during my whole tenure. That might have been the change, like all of us, you know, just maturing in your, you know . . .
SOSEBEE: . . . But I want to talk about some of the Afghan things in a moment, to go back. Well, okay, we talked about, you know constituents. . . . What was his relationship with his colleagues in Congress and, you said, he . . . figured out, you know, what he could get done and what he could do with his power. How did he use that? What was his style in Congress to use that power and to make the deals that Congressmen often have to make?
DAVIS: Well, I'm probably not your best guy to ask that question, although I have my impressions. But I was a district guy and I knew my role and Charlie had lots of incredibly talented folks working for him in Washington who probably could speak to that relationship with colleagues a little better than I could. But certainly he and I spent a lot of time together and I got to witness some one-on-one stuff. He was always bringing folks home. Having them come to the district to speak, or travel with him to campaign, or I would always hear him on the phone talking to them. The neat thing about having a huge district like we had-and I was in this position in his operation- was just a lot of times it was just he and I, you know, just travelling. I get a lot of stuff. I was just really, really lucky so I would hear him interacting with people, all kinds of people, on the phone. You know, if they were travelling with us. They just respected Charlie like crazy because he was just able to be himself. They all loved that. They loved the fact that he could be himself at home and he, I think, used his relationship power as much as anything else. You know they all loved him. . . . I can remember there was a Congressman running for Senate from Houston. Mike Andrews I think was his name.* He told me, just flat out, because we were travelling together, and he says, "Nobody understands the House of Representatives like Charlie Wilson. Nobody can count the votes on the floor like Charlie Wilson." He said, "I've been to him and say, 'Hey, I got this legislation, I got wired. It's going, you know, I need you to do this for me.'" He said, "No, you don't, it's not wired. This guy here will tell you that but believe me he's not with you." So I think people really relied on his sense of the House a lot. He could count the votes as Mike Andrews said and that's a powerful thing to have. [*Michael A. Andrews was a former US Representative (D-TX) from January 1983 to January 1995 for Texas' 25th District that, at the time, roughly covered Austin to San Antonio, stretching west into Central Texas. He lost his election bid for the US Senate in 1994.]
SOSEBEE: And it's a skill. Not everybody can do that.
DAVIS: No, It's reading people. It's being able to read people and to kind of know their backgrounds, you know, whether they are BSing you or not.
SOSEBEE: He spent a long time in Congress. He was a long-time Congressman, which many from Texas are. He had made a lot of relationships. Did he ever-that you know of-aspire to another office? Or is it just that this is what he wanted to do? Senator? Governor? Anything else? Never crossed his mind?
DAVIS: Not that I am even aware of; for an inkling. I just think he had his circumstance wired. And he was comfortable with that and maybe a lot of Congressman say this when they are at home with their constituents, but he always ended, or often times ended, his speeches with, "Thank you so much for giving me the best job in the world." And he meant it, you know. He was accomplishing, what I believe, what he wanted to accomplish. So I never heard him wanting to be in a higher office.
SOSEBEE: You being a district person got to actually, probably, interact with him, almost more than any other time, when campaigns were going on quiet often. . . . Take us through a typical Charlie Wilson campaign.
DAVIS: Well, for the most part, Charlie didn't have any real serious challenges until later in his career. And near the end, in the nineties, he was challenged by a young woman from Orange who was formidable [Donna Peterson, who was in her early thirties]. And say what you want to about her, but she was tough and formidable. And when she first filed to run against Charlie [in 1990 at the age of thirty], Peyton Walters and I-that was kind of back in the day-were . . . Charlie wouldn't come home that often, you know, he was taking care of his business. But he would often times get detained in Washington. Various distractions [laughter]. And, so, when this young woman filed to run against Charlie, Peyton Walters [Wilson's Administrative Assistant] and I, you know, of course we started scouting her and figuring out what she was all about or was she getting any traction. So I never forgot, Peyton and I went down to Orange, at her home town, and watched her speak to a Rotary Club or something and we both looked at each other and said, "Oh shit." So we started trying to tell Charlie, you know, "Charlie, this girl's tough. This is not a joke." Even though she's doing the whole opposite of Charlie Wilson thing, the whole Christian conservative, and, actually, the first time she ran she didn't really do that. Her hair was flowing and she was beautiful. She stayed beautiful throughout. But we really tried to start telling Charlie that this girl can really win, she's a steam winder, you know, and he would act like he was paying attention, but really didn't plug in to her that much the first time that she ran and, you know, we had a few campaign commercials and stuff, but she got as close as anyone had ever had. She, I think it was 55/45 in the final outcome. And he was stunned, he was really stunned. So he wasn't going to let that happen again the next time. And it was at that time, you know, the Afghan stuff had really kind of winded down and this was when we really started to focus on the small businesses and his position on defense appropriations. And I think he just made a conscious decision that "I'm not go let this person, you know, get away with this on me. I just can't be lazy or whatever." So he plugged. When he plugged in it was awesome. It was an awesome thing. Because you got to remember that this guy was a Naval Academy grad, you know. He's got a tactical military mind. He really does. SOSSEBEE: And she went the first time in '90 and this is '92.
DAVIS: This is '92.
SOSEBEE: Okay that's right . . .
DAVIS: '92. That was rough. That was a big campaign. I think she might have even out spent us in 1992. This was the first big wave of the Christian conservative. Pat Buchannan, the moral majority guy, and anyway, all of that coalesced in '92 and she smelled blood in the water because, without even having much money or organization, she came within ten points of beating Charlie Wilson. So he plugged in and I'm telling you we got organized and we had district captains and neighborhood captains and the big situation room with maps, and he directed it and he came up with the strategies and he loved that kind of stuff. And I discovered through my career that I had some aptitude for it from nowhere. Just so we, we worked a lot of that kind of stuff, you know, what were the commercials, and I had a little bit of background from television making those commercials. So that was something he and I really connected on. So we travelled in different places, we would come up with some really great stuff. A lot of it, we executed, that he wanted to really, he wanted to let people know that she wasn't what she appeared to be. So we actually used that old, I think it's the Platters, I'm not, what is that, "I'm the great pretender."
SOSEBEE: Oh is that right. Oh, okay.
DAVIS: Ah yes!
SOSEBEE: I remember watching that now.
DAVIS: "I'm the great pretender." Well, he and I were flying to Orange, one of the rare times we flew, but we had real tight things in the campaign so we got a plane and we flew from Lufkin to Orange and flying to Orange, we're talking and, you know, and I said, "Man, she, people just need to know that this is all fake and phony." He said, "Yes, she's just pretending." Yeah, she sure is, and then he goes, "That's it, she's the great pretender." So that was the theme for the campaign. So we used that, we re-recorded the old Platters song, I think it's Platters [yes, it is], excuse me if it's not, and that was the background theme of all the commercials and it would go, "Come on Donna. You made $18,000 last year but you got two sports cars." Where are you getting those things? We never said it publically out loud a lot. We just planted the seed. So he got into it.
SOSEBEE: Now she attacked him pretty hard, I mean this was not his . . .
SOSEBEE: This was not his, I mean, this got pretty vitriolic.
SOSEBEE: She got after him pretty hard.
DAVIS: Its fertile ground man; fertile ground. Well, she had a lot to work with, but Charlie had an inoculated himself, I believe, through all the years of being real. You know, "Yeah I'm not perfect but you can count on me to tell you the truth and to return your phone calls," you know.
SOSEBEE: See that was '92. He runs again in '94 and that's his last term.
DAVIS: So did she.
SOSEBEE: Yeah, and that's his last one he got to do. He was in the Congress for two years after the Gingrich Revolution* and would change, and I've asked many people this question, and Charlie voluntarily sat it out enough. Do you think it's because he saw the handwriting on the wall, that he saw the district was about to change, that they probably . . . [were] about to change boundaries on him or was there another reason he decided to leave? [*The Gingrich Revolution, or Republican Revolution, refers to Republican Party success in the 1994 midterm elections. Republicans gained 54 new seats in the House and 8 in the Senate. Gingrich, who became Speaker of the House at this point, was considered the leader of the so-called revolution and was a Congressman from Georgia (from 1979-1999). Large Republican gains were made in state houses too as Republicans also won 12 gubernatorial seats and 472 legislative seats, taking control of 20 state legislatures away from Democrats. Prior to this, Republicans had not held the majority of governorships since 1972 and, more impressively, this was the first time in 50 years that Republicans controlled a majority of state legislatures. Republicans would hold their majority control of the House till the midterm elections in 2006. Their minority status did not last long, however, as the GOP regained the House majority in the 2010 midterm elections.]
DAVIS: Truly, truly believe, it didn't have any. Well, I don't believe the major influence was the district change. I just don't. Those of us who worked that district were in the field everyday on the ground. Yes, it was changing nationally, but he was still solid and strong and could have stayed. I believe more than anything else-and just my personal take- that it was more the change that was taking place in Washington. And that truly, it was not going to be the same atmosphere or, you know, of course, he was use to change, you know, but this was watermark stuff. This was, he could see it coming, you know, that playing to people's deepest fears and anxieties and unspoken things that you worry about other people or other cultures. That was going to be played up huge and that has borne out. It was just going to be these divisions. And Charlie was much more of a guy who was just across all those lines. He didn't have any lines. He was there to do really good work that would have impact primarily for the country, but he could see it was going to a much more, as you said, vitriolic place, and that ain't what he was about. He didn't want to have anything to do with it. It was time, he knew it, but it was so cool, somewhere I heard somebody say, you know something is really good if you can recognize how good it is while it's happening to you. Well, that's what working for him was about. The whole time you were there you just knew you were in something that was really unique. And you were getting exposed to glamorous things . . . and to fun things, to interesting things, to tragic things, figuring out how to solve problems. It was all just a special time.
SOSEBEE: Now you stayed in contact with him after he was out of congress, for sure, and you all still, what was it like? Did he have regrets? Did he miss it?
DAVIS: He never really would necessarily show you that side of himself, you know, not to me anyway. We were . . . I considered us to be really dear friends, but he was still my boss - always will be. He was my boss. I was his guy to get things done and . . . if he had regrets he never shared them with me. Ours was always a very optimistic, funny, you know, we just had a great relationship. Now we shared some tragic times together too, with his health, you know, and then with, you know, he would stub his toe along the way and we would figure out . . .
SOSEBEE: "How we going to get Charlie out of this one."
DAVIS: I like to tell people that when Charlie hired press secretaries, normally a press secretary, their job is to get their bosses name and picture in the newspapers as much as possible, [laughter] out in front of the public, but our P. R. and press people had the exact opposite job. Keep him out of the paper. But yeah.
SOSEBEE: Did he come . . . on after he left - and we talked about this turn of politics and it becoming much more bitterly partisan and divided - did he comment on that?
DAVIS: Oh yeah man.
SOSEBEE: What did he have to say about that?
DAVIS: He was just really disturbed by it. Wasn't surprised by it. He understood it. But, yeah, it disgusted him. It really did. Just the lack of humanity. If nothing else, you know, that should have been one of the words to describe him. He was just so full of humanity. Not in a sappy way, but just in a real way. I think it's just those rural roots of how people take care of each other in a small town. But it bothered him a lot, . . . but he always found a great way to make humor out of it.
SOSEBEE: You know he was . . .
DAVIS: Lots of good material.
SOSEBEE: Considering as much as he did work, and coming from the last part of this, I was going to say that I understand that much of the Afghan situation, what was going on, was so secretive that nobody knew and you didn't really know what was going on at that time. Or did you get any sense, did any of it filter down, that you kind of wonder "What's going on with this," as someone working for him.
DAVIS: Took me a while. Like I said, I got there right when things started to escalate and I can remember I didn't understand what I was hearing for the longest time about, you know, weapon systems, and he was just incredibly astute at, obviously, this network of what the war needed and what, you know, what the Mujahedeen needed. So I heard a lot of that for a long time. Like I was saying, I was privy to hear a lot of his phone calls and then, and then sometimes him just decompressing, talking to me about some of the stuff going on. But, I know he worried, I know he worried after the war and the fact that it was such an unstable region. I know that he worried about anything that they had done during that time coming around later to -it had such a positive impact, and you have to look at it in context. At the time the Soviet Union was the problem and it evolved into a different conflict. But I know that he worried about any leftover missiles getting in the wrong hands later on. He didn't dwell on it because it was a glorious victory. I mean it was. It was unprecedented. He knew he did what he had to do.
SOSEBEE: But he did have lament? He actually tried to sound some sort of alarm when it was all over with and basically we forgot. It's the famous . . . "You know we defeated the Soviets, we drove the out, and then we F-up the peace." And particularly, then, not just the Taliban and, of course, US involvement over there again, that he lived the later part of his life. When you were around him and talking to him, what were his comments on what's going on, presently there.
DAVIS: I'll ask him from time to time and he would just tell me to be afraid.
SOSEBEE: Is that right.
DAVIS: Be afraid. Be very afraid. He said this is real and what's going on the ground because, as I am sure you know, he was the governor of Pakistan's lobbyist - that was his biggest client. They went out of congress because no one knew their region like he did; made perfect sense. But he could see the ground swell coming and that one of the things, one of the reasons I believe that he got involved, was his admiration for their tenacity and their just willing to die for what they believed in, which he respected that, but he also understood that that was very dangerous and deadly and if we didn't use our resources to show that we were there for good rather than just political expediency then there was going to be trouble and he knew what he was talking about.
SOSEBEE: You know that's amazing. And I've asked others this, whether you would know or were privy to it. It's amazing to me, in Afghanistan with relations to Pakistan, this was a man who was intimately involved with that, but I never heard anybody say that . . . they knew whether the [Bush] administration - that got us involved in that - ever picked up the phone and called Charlie and said, "What do you think? What could we do?" Did they ever do that?
DAVIS: I don't know about the administration, and you're right I'm not privy to that. I know that there were still a lot of communication with his colleagues in congress and the senate because he was the go-to-guy, particularly in the early stages of all that because there wasn't that much information coming out of that part of the world at that time and he was pretty much a sole proprietor . . .
SOSEBEE: Yeah! [Laughter.]
DAVIS: Of good intelligence on the ground, you know, in that region.
SOSEBEE: Moving on. . . . You moved after you left Charlie's district office. Did you immediately go to work here? What was the rest of your career?
DAVIS: Oh no. No. When I left Charlie I actually went to work for the small business administration [S.B.A.] for six or eight months of the roughest duty I have ever had [laughter]. I was used to beating those bureaucrats up, but then I had a different appreciation for them once I got over there. I spent a short time at the S.B.A. when I left Charlie because we had an old program that the contractor with America did away with. But I got to slide underneath the fence on where if you were a tenured staffer you could transfer to a federal agency . . .
DAVIS: Without loss of pay or benefits, or get pretty close anyway. So I did that and, but sharply after that, I was offered a job with Temple Land Corporation and I was director of state and local government affairs for five or six years. And the old itch came back and I wanted to get back into politics and I did so. I worked in the state legislature. . . . Started out on the senate side as the district director for a local senator and became chief of staff for a local state representative and stayed there for several years before I took this job. I've been here for four and a half years now. And great, great, great job. This is an organization that it's our job to develop regional concepts and problem solving for regional issues. It's just a great organization. I still get to work with all my old friends who are still around or alive from those days and who were county judges, commissioners, mayors, and we still get to solve a lot of problems.
SOSEBEE: Still see some of the people that you worked with in the district office quite often?
DAVIS: Yeah, we were all really close and we try to see each other pretty often. Some of them are scattered around the country but for the most part their all still pretty much around.
SOSEBEE: It was . . . this loyalty, and that he seemed to inspire an actual devotion. I mean, we started this [oral history] project, people came out of the wood work, everywhere, and it was nothing. "Oh yeah, we'll come talk to you." And it was still in these glowing terms that he had to do. And which, I think, that says a lot about the man.
DAVIS: Well it's just real, you know, and we don't always know how to describe it, but you know it when you are able to experience it and feel it and just imagine it in your life. You get to do something as unique as well, just beyond your wildest dreams. Like the book and the movie and all of that. Most of us were not that surprised by it. I mean it was, obviously it was, you know, it was this kind of shocking, you know, that somebody is actually going to document this. But the thing about it was the whole time you were there you felt like you were in a book or a movie already [laughter]. And that's just the way.
SOSEBEE: It's one of those, "Somebody will make a movie out of this."
DAVIS: Somebody. But we can't tell all the stuff, but there's a lot of good stuff here we can tell. But when the author, you know, George Crile, started coming down and he would - he stayed with us - he travelled with us for the longest time. And during those campaigns, those tough campaigns, he was riding with us on the bus. So we all get to know George and George was kind of a fixture for a year or two with us and entered all. Kind of went away and, every once in a while, you know, sometimes we would pass and I would say, "Charlie, you heard anything else from George on the book." "Oh, he says he's got a publisher, you know." And the next thing I know, you know, Charlie calls us and says, "Well it looks like their gonna to publish it." Two weeks later, he goes, "Well, it's number one, New York Times."
SOSEBEE: Oh, it just took off like you wouldn't believe.
DAVIS: And, yeah. But I was so happy for him. I was so gratified for Charlie that somebody got it. Somebody documented it. Somebody grabbed that really unique special nugget in time, you know, and they did the movie and I was afraid they were going to buffoon him because that was so easy to go that direction. But they didn't.
SOSEBEE: That was my greatest . . . I said, you know, they can end up making fun of this man.
SOSEBEE: And I hope . . .
DAVIS: But they didn't.
SOSEBEE: That doesn't happen. They didn't do it.
DAVIS: They got it. The book was very serious. Anyway, so it was, it all kind of just felt like working for Charlie, you know, oh, there, wrote a book; gone, their making a movie; oh, we're going to the premier? Yeah, we should.
SOSEBEE: Well listen. It was an adventure. Well we've gone about an hour. But I want to make sure I haven't forgotten anything. Paul [
SANDUL:] is there something you think we need to ask Shaun?
SANDUL:: I do have two questions . . . I would really love to hear your answer to. And I've asked this question. This question has been asked of everyone. Goodtime Charlie. How much do you think the media's attention was Good Time Charlie? What is the gap? Is it near like you speak; to reality verses Good Time Charlie.
DAVIS: Oh it was real. It was real. This is a man who enjoyed his vices. I mean he just tackled his new vices, his vices with great exuberance, just like he did everything else. And that's what made him so enjoyable and all inspiring. And if you ever trying to drink with him, it was just, you can stay. But you had to try, you know, you had to try. But I don't think there was much of a gap there. It was, but if you will notice even when they did the Good Time stuff, it was never that "this guy is a buffoon and shouldn't be in congress." It was just like, "Can you believe this wild man," you know. So we were all just [laughter] . . . and the answer was, no, it's unbelievable. It was pretty close, pretty close.
SANDUL:: What is your favorite, most fond memory of you and Charlie Wilson?
DAVIS: Ah man. Well I can't tell you my fondness memory because that's too personal, but I can tell you my favorite story.
DAVIS: If that's okay.
DAVIS: Because it involves me, so it's my favorite [laughs].
SANDUL:: That will work.
DAVIS: Okay, so I was new district director and I was, you know, a little full of myself, taking it very seriously. We needed a receptionist, okay, in the office, and had an opening. So, of course, I submitted a job description to the Texas Employment Office and, you know, put it in the paper. And, you know, I was lining up my interviews and just going to have it all down and, when Charlie was coming to town, I was going to present to him my choice, you know, just like you do in an office, you know, a respectable place of commerce [laughter]. So Charlie came to town. I had interviewed three or four people and I had a person that I thought would do really great because, again, we did a lot of serious work in the office. You had to step up and really get into it. Also, Charlie came to town his first day. And Charlie didn't work in the office much; he worked from his home, you know, he didn't want to get trapped in there by constituents [laughter] because, invariably, every time he would sneak into the office somebody would catch him in the elevator. Anyway, so he calls me from home and he said, "Davis, how's the receptionist search going." I said, "Well, pretty good. I'm ready to present you some resumes I got," you know. He says, "Not necessary, not necessary. I found the receptionist." I said, "Really? I mean, you just got here two hours ago, you know, really." "Yeah, yeah. I was just at the bank, met her, she's perfect. She's going to be great. She's gorgeous. And I, you, just got to excuse me, but," he said, "she's got great bull shit, she's really good." I said, "Well, okay, but I need to show you these resumes I got." He said, "You can show me that later, but she's going to be in there at two o'clock. So you can interview her." I said, "Yes sir, yes sir." So sure enough she's comes in and he's shows up and he is, as always, right on the money. She is drop-dead gorgeous and so we get to talking like this and trying to tell her all this work that we do and not much response or anything; kind of like this [Davis knocks on wood]. "Hello." So I said, "Thank you very much for coming in. It was just great." So I called him up at the house. He said "Well, what did you think. She's great isn't she, she's just great." I said, "Well Charlie, let me put it this way. She's not a natural." He said, "Davis, let me put it this way, if she can make one out of three pots of coffee you better hire her [laughter].
SOSEBEE: And that's pretty good.
DAVIS: So I hired her.
SOSEBEE: How long did she last?
DAVIS: About six months [laughter].
SOSEBEE: Could she make coffee?
DAVIS: I never put her to that test. I didn't want to have that in the mix.
SOSEBEE: I love that. Shaun this has been great, thank you for your time. This has been great . . .
DAVIS: Thank you for doing this.
SOSEBEE: I think when we talk about this, getting you in here, we got to get all these guys together again so they can start, and that may be one thing we have to do.
DAVIS: Yeah, I would love that.
SOSEBEE: You and Peyton and Schnabel, if we can ever get him free from doing whatever it is that Charles Schnabel does.
DAVIS: None of us has ever known.
SANDUL:: He still showed up before, so.
SOSEBEE: Oh, I know. He'll be there . . .
DAVIS: Oh, he would be a great story teller.
SOSEBEE: And I think it would be great, and then maybe we will come back and, as we go through this, and say, "Oh, there was something we didn't ask Shaun." We want to ask. But this has been great. This has been a fantastic interview.
DAVIS: Well thank you.
SOSEBEE: I honestly appreciate it. We're going to produce things from this. This oral interview is going to in our collections and where scholars can access this because I think it is important. I mean, yeah, [George] Crile did a good job [writing Charlie Wilson's War] but Charlie's importance has not totally been told yet and somebody's going to and I think this will help.
DAVIS: That's why I thank you guys so much because this is worth it. This really is. This really is one of those unique things that come along in the history of East Texas, the country, and, dare I say, the world. I think I can because he was an international figure. You know, as much as I can tell the story, it's going to be helpful on many levels, you know. So thank y'all for the work, what y'all are doing. . . .