Joe Wilson was the first to tell America the Iraq War started under false colors and suffered serious political repercussions. | Credit: Paul Wellman

Joseph Wilson: 1949-2019

An American hero passed away September 27 from organ failure at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. 

The designation of American hero for Joseph Charles Wilson IV is not mine alone. The term was bestowed upon him by the 41st President of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush. In the days leading up to the war with Iraq in 1991, Wilson was the primary diplomatic representative of the United States in Baghdad. He was the last American to negotiate face to face with Saddam Hussein before the U.S. embassy closed.

At the time, Hussein threatened execution for anyone harboring foreigners in Baghdad. Wilson not only continued to shelter 100 individuals, but he arrived at a press conference with a noose around his neck, stating, “If the choice is between allowing American citizens to be taken hostage or execution, I will bring my own fucking rope.”

Joseph Wilson was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, into a “proud Republican family,” as he would say, one steeped in public and military service. After graduating in 1972 from the University of California, Santa Barbara, with a degree in history (along with “surfing and volleyball”), he worked as a carpenter. Fluent in French, Wilson entered the U.S. Foreign Service, serving from 1976 through 1998. His diplomatic career took him from Niger to Togo, South Africa to Burundi, the Congo to Iraq, Gabon to Sao Tome and Principe, then Germany, and finally Washington, D.C. He became a special assistant to President Bill Clinton and senior director for African Affairs within the National Security Council.

In 2002, Joe’s diplomatic career came full circle when he was asked by his government to return to Niger, his initial diplomatic assignment. His job was to help determine whether the Hussein regime had been seeking quantities of uranium, commonly known as yellow cake, in order to advance its nuclear weapons program. What happened in subsequent months again demonstrated Joe Wilson’s courage under fire.

In his State of the Union address on January 2003, President George W. Bush included the statement, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” The invasion of Iraq took place two months later.

By July, no evidence of weapons of mass destruction had been found, which had been one of the Bush administration’s leading arguments for the invasion. 

Wilson penned an op-ed published in the New York Times titled, “What I Didn’t Find in Africa.” In it, he stated that Bush’s rationale for war had twisted the intelligence to exaggerate the Iraqi threat that Wilson had been recruited to help define.

One week after the article, columnist Robert Novak, with information provided by those working in the Bush administration, exposed Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, as a CIA operative. It destroyed both their careers. The retaliatory act and all that followed is captured in two books by Wilson and Plame, along with the 2010 film Fair Game (also the title of Plame’s book) with Sean Penn and Naomi Watts.

Joe is survived by his children, two sets of twins: Sabrina and Joseph, from his first marriage, and Trevor and Samantha from his third marriage, to Plame, which ended in 2017.

It was my honor to interact with Joe Wilson over the past two years while I was working on a doctoral thesis concerning the Imperial Presidency. He generously agreed to provide his thoughts on my project. When I spoke with Joe this past June, he had just left the hospital where he had been “given his expiration date.”

His grandchildren were arriving in a few days, and though I told him the obvious priority was to focus on his family, Joe, being Joe Wilson, insisted on completing his follow-up interview with me. Cognizant that he had only a matter of months to live, he had also given a 10-hour in-depth interview on our current political situation, which he described as “the biggest threat to our democracy since the Civil War.”

Our last phone conversation touched on life in general and how to summarize it. I told Joe a story about actor Robert Mitchum, who once sat at the Oscars next to a young, wide-eyed actor who appeared enamored by the glitz and glamour of the evening’s ceremonies. Mitchum leaned over and whispered, “Just remember, kid ​— ​it’s all bullshit.” Joe’s laughter at that was loud and long.

Whether standing up to a dictator to protect the lives of 100 American citizens, or suffering the consequences of speaking truth to power, or taking precious time to share his concerns for the future of our country, Joe Wilson was a true American hero and patriot. And that’s no bullshit.


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