joanne king herring

Charlie Wilson’s War: Main Characters and Misleading Propaganda

When presented with the original script of Charlie Wilson’s War (Nichols, 2007), Texas bon vivant Joanne King Herring (played by Julia Roberts in the movie) keeled over and nearly choked, for the last scene was a video clip of the Pentagon burning on September 11, 2001. What was the cause of her extreme reaction? Outrage over potential misleading propaganda?

Misleading Propaganda and Bias

When a large-scale catastrophe occurs, the tendency is to inflame moral panic by blaming a person or institution that by mere existence is perceived to be responsible, though it may have nothing to do with the tragedy. A current example is the National Rifle Association (NRA), which is being condemned as the enabler of recent mass shootings, the most recent in Broward County, Florida where 17 people were allegedly killed by a troubled young man named Nicolas Cruz. It doesn’t matter that no mass shooter thus far has been a member of the NRA. The one-sided story has swept the media.

Does the press hold a negative bias or prejudice against the NRA? According to a dictionary definition (“Causes of Prejudice – Prejudice in the Modern World Reference Library“, 2006),

A person is prejudiced when he has formed an attitude toward a particular social group of people before having enough information on which to form a knowledgeable opinion. A negative prejudice is when the attitude is hostile toward members of a group.

Seemingly brushed aside are facts that the FBI was warned of Cruz’ violent tendencies, and that local authorities had been alerted about Cruz an astounding 45 times. There has been little discussion on the atrocious lack of effective resources for treating mental illness (McCausland, 2018). All of those are somehow seen as minor facts as the media saturates itself with attacks on the NRA as the institution responsible for mass shootings.

Creating scapegoats must be human nature because it happens everywhere. President Bill Clinton was blamed multiple times for 9/11 because he allegedly missed an earlier opportunity to take out Osama Bin Laden and inflict significant damage to the Al Qaeda organization. President George W. Bush was chided for national security failures that allowed terrorists to attack America under his watch. A path to destruction can be retroactively paved toward any person or institution with associations, however tenuous, to real or imagined factors that led to a tragedy.

Joanne Herring nearly passed out because the path of 9/11 had been paved directly to her and Charlie Wilson, a Democratic US Representative from Texas at the time. Once she recovered from her near fainting spell caused by the mere notion that she and Mr. Wilson planted the seeds of 9/11, the Texas socialite called high-profile lawyer Richard DeGuerin to take legal action against Universal Studios.1

Joanne King Herring, in Afghanistan
Joanne King Herring, in Afghanistan

Much to the relief of Herring and Wilson, DeGuerin prevailed and the video clip of 9/11 was removed from the script, as well as other misrepresen-tations. “They turned me into a kooky, hypocritical tart,” says Herring (“Socialite wins her ‘War'”, 2007). Universal saved face by claiming that a more upbeat ending increased chances for Academy Award recognition.

Joanne King Herring

With a snake wrapped around her leg, the young Joanne cried to her father for help. Using the opportunity to instill independence in his daughter, Mr. Johnson told her, “You have to take care of it yourself” (Feldman, 2007). Little Joanne then shook the snake off her leg. It seems that her father’s lesson succeeded, for Joanne has been taking care of herself ever since.

President Reagan and Nancy with Joanne King Herring
President Reagan and Nancy with Joanne King Herring

This story about Joanne Herring is one of many dramatic episodes written about her over the years. Below are excerpts from other writers about this energetic woman who was born into prominence, married into the immense wealth of real estate and oil, and thrust into the spotlight on the world stage by a passionate heart as big as her home state of Texas. According to Mackenzie Warren in the Houston Chronicle (2008), George Crile, author of the book from which this month’s movie was adapted, said this about her,

‘Invariably, when reporters write features about Joanne Herring, they invoked Scarlett O’Hara . . . But to appreciate her full impact, it helps to add Zsa Zsa Gabor, Dolly Parton and even a bit of Arianna Huffington.’

Joanne King Herring
Joanne King Herring

Oscar de la Renta is one of her favorite designers and she likes to shop at Neiman Marcus. She drives a red Jaguar convertible and her two black poodles wear bandanas. “I was driving in traffic and someone gave me the finger. I smiled and blew him a kiss” (Warren, 2008).

The Washington Post’s Sally Quinn (1978) quotes Herring,

‘The year I was up for the Junior League back in the ’60s, I gave a Roman bacchanal.’ Then married to Houston millionaire Bob King, Joanne already was a controversial local celebrity. ‘They weren’t ready for that in Houston,’ she went on. ‘We rehearsed it for a month. I’d gone out and gotten a black Boy Scout troop and hired them to be little Nubian slaves. And we burned a Christian and everything. People drank out of goblets. We auctioned off girls, people got thrown in the pool, the guests left at 7 a.m. Life magazine covered it. I didn’t intend for that to happen. How do I get myself into these things? My mother had to go into seclusion. I had a big house with a ballroom in those days. It would be impossible to do that kind of thing now. We were all so young then. Now we’re all so dignified. So filled with responsibilities. I don’t give bacchanals anymore. I grew up. . . .

I make parties count. I give parties for a purpose. I want people to meet and exchange ideas, create things for themselves and for Houston. Many things have happened at my parties that I find heartwarming. If I see a friend make a deal for himself I feel good. . . .

I found out that the only thing that seems to have clout is to be a glamorous figure. Without the glamorous image I have no clout. For instance, the only way I’ll get into the State Department is if somebody meets me at a party and wants to talk to me, has fun with me at the party. . . . I don’t particularly like it if they don’t think I have a brain in my head but if that’s the only way I can get them to listen, well then that’s the way it is.

Forbes Magazine contributor, Ralph Benko provides a short bio (2011),

She’s been dirt poor; she’s been filthy rich. Rich was more fun. She married three times, divorced twice, found her true love, and lost him to cancer. At twenty-one, she was told she would soon die. She lived. Doctors said she’d never be able to have children. She had ’em. She’s bargained with God, dictators, and Democrats. She’s partied with princes, presidents, premiers, Barbara Walters, Anwar Sadat, Margaret Thatcher, Tom Hanks, and Francisco Franco . . .  . She captivated powerful men with her feminine charm, and then persuaded them toward unlikely political alliances through her formidable intelligence. She waltzed with Prince Philip in Buckingham Palace, dressed in men’s clothes and smuggled herself in a barrel across the Pakistani border, threw a Roman-themed party so extravagant it was featured in Life magazine, and survived a Soviet gunship attack in the mountains of Afghanistan. . . .

As Herring recounts in her book, Diamonds and Diplomacy (King Herring & Dorman-Hickson, 2011),

George Crile wrote in his book Charlie Wilson’s War: ‘[(Pakistan’s) President Zia] was so spellbound by Herring, and took her so seriously, that to the utter dismay of his entire foreign office, he made her Pakistan’s roving ambassador to the world and even awarded her his country’s highest civilian honor, the title of Quaid-e-Azam, or ‘Great Leader.’ Charlie Wilson says that Zia would leave cabinet meetings just to take Joanne’s calls. ‘There was no affair with Zia,’ Wilson recalls, ‘but it’s impossible to deal with Joanne and not deal with her on a sexual basis. No matter who you are, you take those phone calls.’

Warren (2008) added,

She once built the 29-year-old King of Sweden a disco. She thought, ‘I have four boys. We will use it over and over.’ So Herring kicked one of her sons out of his bedroom and built a disco room in her Houston mansion. (The house was later brought by Ken Lay of ENRON, who got rid of the disco.) And Ms. Herring used the disco room to throw parties for the Shah of Iran, the King of Morocco and her sons’ fraternity parties.

The following clip is from a talk Herring gave at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University (Herring, 2011),

This video is a recording of Herring expressing concerns about how Julia Roberts represents her in our movie:


Black-tie optional mid-week, in the middle of summer? What hostess would make such an audacious request of dinner guests, including advising the women to wear “gowns, jewels, bring out the bling, ladies!” (Hodge,2014).

Professing herself as a Christian, Herring said that even Christ liked to have a good time. Even Greek Fates may never have been so overwhelmed as the day Joanne met Mr. Charlie Wilson.

Charlie Wilson, Congressman

Charlie Wilson, Congressman from Texas
Charlie Wilson, Congressman from Texas

There must be something about the state of Texas that it produces characters that surpass anything the world of fiction can create. Democratic congressman Charlie was a handsome gun slinging’ Texan, who did much wheelin’ and dealin’ in our nation’s capitol, and occasionally dipped in hot tubs with arms around Las Vegas showgirls. His moniker, “Good Time Charlie”, was fitting, as his was a life of many vices— partying, womanizing, and drinking among them. Says Charlie Wilson,

The girls had cocaine, and the music was loud. It was total happiness. And both of them had ten long, red fingernails with an endless supply of beautiful white powder . . . The feds spent a million bucks trying to figure out whether, when those fingernails passed under my nose, did I inhale or exhale, and I ain’t telling.

Wilson said he could “take his job seriously without taking himself seriously.” He represented US District 2, serving continuously for over two decades (1973 to 1997). His partying ways aside, he worked hard for his constituents. I again credit other writers for capturing another larger than life Texan.

Mark McKinnon says about Wilson in The Daily Beast (2010),

An Annapolis graduate, former Navy officer and Texas legislator, Wilson arrived in Congress with his cowboy boots and his big booming laugh. He soon met another freshman Democrat — Colorado feminist Patricia Schroeder — and he sent her a gift. She opened it and found a picture in a pink frame. It showed a tombstone that read “Wife of Davy Crockett.” There was also a note from Wilson: ‘In Texas, we don’t even let women use their first name on their tombstones.’

‘I thought, ‘Who is this Neanderthal?’ and I stormed into his office,’ Schroeder recalls. ‘He burst out laughing. He has spent his whole life figuring out how to pull people’s chains — and he was pulling mine.’

Wilson was always a solid vote on important women’s issues, and his female colleagues and feminists loved him, but he constantly tested their limits: He would commonly refer to Representative Pat Schroeder as “Baby Cakes”. When she complained that he wasn’t offering her the proper respect, he responded, ‘Excuse me: Congressman Baby Cakes’

(Let’s pause to imagine how the strident Senator Elizabeth Warren would react to being called “Baby Cakes.”)

Charlie Wilson in party mode
Charlie Wilson in party mode

He once dated a gorgeous Russian model. Because Wilson served on sensitive intelligence committees, some of the brass questioned his choice of paramours—wondering in this case whether the model in question could be a Russian spy. Wilson’s retort: “Gentlemen, the only secrets she gets from me are Victoria’s” (McKinnon, 2010).

Women loved Charlie. He was as irresistible to them as Joanne Herring is to men. Even the most radical of feminists knew that underneath Charlie Wilson’s hellion ways was a heart of gold. They just couldn’t help it. The columnist Molly Ivins once pondered how it was that a liberal feminist such as herself could love such an unreconstructed chauvinist so very, very much (Tumulty, 2010).

“I’ve been worrying about my fitness to write for Ms. Magazine on account of I like Charlie Wilson,” she wrote in that magazine in 1988.  She goes on to write,

Good Lord, that is embarrassing. Congressman Wilson is the Hunter Thompson of the House of Representatives; a gonzo politician. He’s a sexist and has made war a spectator sport. By way of redeeming social value, he’s funny, a good congressman for his district, and hasn’t an ounce of hypocrisy. … I called Wilson to ask him why we like him, thinking he might know. He said: `Feminists like me because I am an unapologetic sexist, chauvinist redneck … who … votes with ’em every time. I have proven that I can vote with ’em without kissing their ass. I try not to let ’em know I vote with ’em; it’s more fun to have ’em mad at me.’

Wilson was also a fervent anticommunist, despite being liberal on social issues. After being urged on by Joanne Herring, he agreed to visit Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, and made his first trip to Islamabad in the fall of 1982. He met with President Zia (a meeting arranged by Herring) and visited the Afghan refugee camps and hospitals in northern Pakistan, home to around 3 million Afghans. Wilson’s biography (“Charlie Wilson’s War – The Real Charlie Wilson”, 2007) suggests that he was deeply moved when he visited the children, many of whom had been maimed by Soviet land mines and weapons.

I left those hospitals determined that a long as I had a breath in my body and was a member of Congress, that I was gonna do what I could to make the Soviets pay for what they were doing.

In three years time, the Soviets had killed an estimated 10% of  Afghanistan’s population. By the end of the war, the Soviets had taken the lives of more than a million Afghans. Each time Charlie visited the refugee camps and hospitals, he donated blood to help those suffering (“The True Story Of Charlie Wilson 1 of 5 – Video Dailymotion”, 2018).

Mr. Charlie Wilson, Riding in Afghanistan
Mr. Charlie Wilson, Riding along in Afghanistan

The obvious question often asked about Wilson was: How did he get away with his behavior, especially given that his district was deep in the heart of heavily religious East Texas? The simple answer was: authenticity. Unlike so many in politics, Wilson never pretended to be a choir boy, never pretended to be anything other than what he was. He also worked his tail off and never forgot his constituents, whom he affectionately called “the home folks” (McKinnon,2010). At a time when he almost single-handedly forced the Russian army out of Afghanistan, he also racked up awards for the most responsive and effective constituent office in Congress. Nobody out-partied Wilson. But no one outworked him, either.

Joanne and Charlie Take on the Russians

Charlie Wilson and Joanne Herring
Charlie Wilson and Joanne Herring

Traveling the Middle East with her second husband, the oil tycoon Robert Herring, exposed Joanne to the plight of Afghan women. Robert’s untimely death from cancer in 1981 did not mitigate Joanne’s determination to help war-torn Afghans. The movie Charlie Wilson’s War tells the story of how Joanne Herring persuaded the lovable and shrewd “Good Time Charlie” to work through the House Appropriations Committee to release to the CIA the funds needed to arm “freedom fighters” in Russian-occupied Afghanistan. With Joanne and Charlie in cahoots, the Russians didn’t stand a chance.

The alluring Joanne and the charismatic Charlie inevitably struck up a romance during their mission; there was even a proposal that Joanne wisely turned down. She knew there was little common ground between them except for their intense fear of communism—Charlie liked Willie Nelson and football, while Joanne was into opera and the arts. Herring explains,

But I hope people who see the film don’t think it was just like I seduced Charlie and that was why he got involved. He had a good, pure heart. If the Soviets had kept control of Afghanistan, they’d have gone on to the Straits of Hormuz and oil to the US would have been cut off.

It is nothing short of incredible that Joanne Herring, a mere US citizen, was able to wield so much influence over US foreign dealings. It is easy to be a gracious, generous, and glamorous socialite when you have bukus of money. However, Joanne went way beyond the typical charity ball when she decided to take the Afghans’ cause into her own hands. She knew how to use her resources and talents to get what she believed in. Joanne certainly had the intelligence, energy, and persistence to run for elected office, but that was not her style. Her approach was networking glittering parties in attractive dresses. She made herself impossible for men to refuse during these “parties with a purpose.” You can’t deny that she got results.

Women have different ideas about their freedoms today

How different is this style from the feminist ideal of today! Should today’s women be grateful that we live in a society that allows us to achieve and follow dreams with equal opportunity? Despite these freedoms, the US is not yet a perfect place for women. Equal opportunity does not mean equal pay or equal respect. The #metoo times have made that painfully clear. The glass ceiling of the executive branch of government has yet to be fully cracked by women. However, because of the sacrifices and hard work by feminists, women are free to pursue any chosen career path. Clever and capable women such as Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, Nancy Pelosi, Madeline Albright, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and many others have reached the highest echelons of politics and government service, and are role models for younger women who want to emulate them.

Those who serve as elected officials in Congress do not need a Charlie Wilson to make things happen. Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Nancy Pelosi need only to make themselves attractive to their constituents to stay in office from where they can make decisions, deals, and laws that not only affect American citizens but also those of other countries. While the power these women exercise is remarkable, it is what they do with it that defines their legacy. That Joanne Herring was not hindered by overwhelming partisan politics perhaps worked in her favor as she used her time, energy and resources to help Afghanistan, a faraway country in dire need.

Herring was not concerned with reelection or reaping accolades. Her motives were selfless, and shouldn’t that be the first quality of a public servant? Without selflessness, how else can we attempt to move forward to make a better world for the next generation? A friend once said, “Women need to stand shoulder to shoulder, and face the world together instead of tearing each other down.” When we celebrate progress in femininity, let’s remember that women who prefer to stay home, bake cookies, and have teas are equally important to us all because they also fill needed roles and have the freedom to live their lives the way they want.

Alas, no good deed goes unpunished. While the formidable duo, Joanne Herring and Charlie Wilson, were successful in procuring weapons that enabled the Mujahideen to force the Soviets out of Afghanistan, they had no control over the aftermath. Once the Soviet threat was gone in 1989, and all American aid was cut off in 1991, Afghanistan was left to fend for itself. From this vacuum arose the Taliban, a sponsor of terrorism.

The following is an interview with Charlie Wilson, who expresses his conviction about what he accomplished and what he didn’t get to finish in Afghanistan (Nawabi, 2009).


Brookings Institute security expert Michael O”Hanlon said (Farshori, 2014),

I think the first lesson the United States learned, it learned after 9/11, and that lesson was [that] we cannot ignore or abandon Afghanistan. After the Soviets were defeated, we essentially stopped paying attention, and through the 1990s, the United States basically ignored Afghanistan and let it descend into sectarian conflict, anarchy, and then of course the rise of the Taliban and, of course, sanctuaries resulted from that.

Making scapegoats of the vulnerable  – easy targets for media propaganda

Scapegoats are more convenient for ideological agendas than smoking guns. Like the NRA, the unpopular Prince Charles, heir to the throne of England, helplessly endured scathing blame for a tragedy that was out of his control. While French driver Henri Paul drove recklessly under the influence through the L’Alma Tunnel in Paris with beloved Diana, Princess of Wales, unbuckled in the backseat, he was relaxing in the secluded Balmoral Estate in Scotland. Prince Charles, not unlike the NRA, respectfully refrained from aggressively responding to the unfair accusations that he was to blame for his ex-wife’s death.

When the road to 9/11 was being paved to them, Joanne Herring and Charlie Wilson also found themselves as unwarranted targets. However, and in contrast, these feisty characters fought back by retaining attorneys to let the world know that their good intentions had nothing to do with unintended consequences of US abandonment of Afghanistan. While Charlie said he had never heard of the Taliban, Joanne astutely stated (Morgan, 2008),

The important thing for people to realize: Who did we go to fight? Russia. Did we beat them? Yes. You cannot predict future wars; if you could, we wouldn’t have them.

It was ridiculous. Who has ever been able to predict future wars? I set out to help the Afghan people because I am a patriot who wanted to save our world from Soviet expansion.

Most of us can’t imagine the thoughts of individuals who make catastrophic and what may seem to be senseless decisions. Yet, that just may be the reason we can easily make scapegoats of vulnerable targets. No matter the cause Joanne Herring or Charlie Wilson championed, and no matter the policies of the Bush/Clinton/Bush-eras, 19 individual terrorists hijacked airplanes on September 11, 2001. It was within the power of each one who took the control of the planes to say, “I’m not doing this.”

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way
—Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning


1 Richard DeGuerin represented some of the bankers during the Enron debacle. He is known as among the best US criminal defense lawyers.


Moral panic
Moral panic is the process of arousing social concern over an issue—usually the work of moral entrepreneurs (see Moral enterprise, below) and the mass media (“moral panic – Dictionary definition of moral panic”, 2016).

A scapegoat is a goat that carries the sins of the people on his head into the wilderness in the biblical ceremony for Yom Kippur, one that bears the blame for others.

Theory of moral enterprise
Moral enterprise refers to the processes involved in creating an awareness of issues and following them through into the statute-book. Moral entrepreneurs are the rule-makers, campaigners, and enforcers.


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Crile, G. (2007). Charlie Wilson’s war: The Extraordinary story of how the wildest man in congress and a rogue CIA agent changed the history of our times. New York: Grove Press.

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Frankl, V. (2006). Man’s search for meaning. Boston: Beacon Press.

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5 thoughts on “Charlie Wilson’s War: Main Characters and Misleading Propaganda”

  1. Good job Lucy for a comprehensive and entertaining article. I enjoyed reading every bit of it. A couple of kudos also to editor Pam.

    1. Thanks but all credit goes to Lucy for this valuable perspective on a now-controversial event.

    2. Thank you so much, Jerry! I learned so much doing the research, and Yes, Pam deserves a lot of credit for her editing skills!

  2. Fascinating woman. I saw the film, but I really want to read Joanne’s book for her side of the story! Thank you, Lucy, for this interesting post. Milam

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