Marc Carlisle: A tale of foreign debauchery made for Hollywood
On the Marc
She could have been a mirage to the men waiting in the desert sun at the airport. The U.S. Congressmen and their wives who had already descended from the U.S. Air Force jet at Damascus, Syria, had been stereotypical.
From the Connecticut Yankee in blue blazer, rep tie, and gray trousers, to Charlie Wilson, a Texan in dark suit, string tie, and boots, they fit the part, leaving the welcoming American diplomats and Syrian foreign ministry officials completely unprepared for Joanne Herring.
She wore a leopard print body stocking that hugged every curve, from just above the straps of her black high heels to the jewelry at the wrist and throat. Her face and hair were hidden in the deep shadow of an impossibly broad hat, which was just as well because no face could match the fantasy of the body.
The cable from Washington announcing the visit of members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee had caught the embassy off-guard. Since the 1967 war, Congressmen had treated Israel’s antagonists as pariahs, and while they flocked to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, few had journeyed to Damascus.
No one knew why, in August of 1984, any Congressmen should visit Syria, and the inclusion of Ms. Herring, the Honorary Consul from the Southwest United States of America to Pakistan, only deepened the mystery. Her title was an obvious chimera, since the U.S. had no honorary consuls of any kind from any part of the country to anywhere, intended to enable the raconteur Wilson, who resembles actor Peter Coyote, to bring his girlfriend along at taxpayer expense.
Telegrams to Damascus from the embassies at their stops in London, Paris, and Rome, said only that she shopped ceaselessly for her boutique in Houston, taking advantage of taxpayer paid shipping and the duty free privileges accorded Congressmen, while Wilson drank and played tourist. Regardless, the Syrians were most eager to make the best possible impression and bend the ears of the Congressmen.
They wisely scheduled no meetings and instead arranged a series of receptions and meals, culminating in a state banquet at 10 p.m. on the last night. By 6 a.m., the only American still on his feet was Charlie Wilson, sloppy drunk, but coherent. The Honorary Consul, though, was a no show, having been told by the Air Force pilot that the plane’s cargo bay was full and could carry no more. In a huff, she spent the night in the room she shared with Wilson, and at 8 a.m., she appeared well-rested alongside the remains of the Congressman for their departure from Damascus to Baghdad, Iraq. Like the Syrians, the Iraqis, led by one Saddam Hussein, were looking forward to making new friends from America.
But it was not to be. As the sleepless, bleary-eyed Congressman boarded their jet, they announced that they were skipping Baghdad and flying directly to their last stop Pakistan.
“Damascus,” one said, “was enough meat on the schedule,” making clear that the Syria and Iraq stops were only to deflect criticism that their junket was a shopping and sightseeing trip. Baghdad and Damascus are close, and when the jet left Damascus, Hussein and an enormous crowd were already at the airport. A humiliated Hussein later learned that the Americans were simply too hungover to visit Baghdad, and only after the Gulf War was over, did anyone from Congress visit Iraq.
Herring, Wilson, and the rest never returned to Damascus, or Baghdad, but Wilson did make another trip to Pakistan and nearby Afghanistan. Back in the U.S., says the Universal Studios press release, Wilson convinced Congress to train and arm resistance fighters in Afghanistan to fend off the Soviet invasion.
The events inspired a book and the movie Charlie Wilson’s War, which opens Dec. 25. Herring is portrayed by actress Julia Roberts, and Wilson by Tom Hanks, “in the true story of how a playboy congressman and a beautiful Houston socialite joined forces to lead the largest and most successful covert operation in history.”
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