Charles W. Colson, the Republican political operative who boasted he would “walk over my own grandmother” to ensure the re-election of President Richard M. Nixon and went on to found a worldwide prison fellowship ministry after his conversion to evangelical Christianity, died April 21 at Inova Fairfax Hospital. He was 80.
The death, after a brain hemorrhage earlier this month, was confirmed by a family spokeswoman, Michelle Farmer. Colson was a resident of Naples, Fla., but maintained an apartment in the Leesburg area.
Colson’s reputation as a “dirty tricks artist” overshadowed his achievements as a darkly brilliant political strategist. He had helped lay the groundwork for the Nixon landslide of November 1972 by appealing to disgruntled Democrats and blue-collar minority voters.
A self-described “hatchet man” for Nixon, Colson compiled the notorious “enemies list” of politicians, journalists and activists perceived as threats to the White House. And most fatefully, he helped orchestrate illegal activities to discredit former Pentagon official Daniel Ellsberg, who was suspected of leaking a top-secret history of the Vietnam War to the New York Times and The Washington Post.
It was the targeting of Ellsberg — rather than Colson’s peripheral involvement in the growing Watergate break-in scandal — that eventually led to his conviction for obstruction of justice. In the midst of this crisis, Colson said he underwent a profound religious transformation in August 1973.
Acting against the advice of his lawyers, Mr. Colson pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, a step that he depicted as “a price I had to pay to complete the shedding of my old life and to be free to live the new.”
Released from prison on parole in January 1975 after seven months in a minimum-security facility, Colson became a leading voice in the evangelical movement and advocate for prison reform.
The need for such work, he said, was drawn from what he called his frightening experience in confinement. Prison, he said, was filled with embittered inmates who contemplated escape and revenge at every turn.
“He transferred his huge drive, intellect and maniacal energy from the service of Richard Nixon to the service of Jesus Christ,” said biographer Jonathan Aitken, a former British government minister who endured a similar journey of political disgrace and personal redemption after a 1999 conviction for perjury.
Colson’s autobiography, “Born Again,” first published in 1976, sold millions of copies over the years. In 1993, he was awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize, worth more than $1 million, which is given each year to the person who has done the most to advance the cause of religion.
Outwardly, Colson remained recognizably the same person before and after his conversion. Even toward the end of his life, he retained the same amused expression in his heavily wrinkled face.
His crumpled look, fondness for blazers and striped ties, and talent for incisive repartee gave him the appearance of an overgrown New England prep-school boy, but also masked one of the traits he shared with Nixon: an outsider self-image.
Delighted in defying convention
Born Oct. 16, 1931, in Boston, Charles Wendell Colson was the only child of Wendell Colson and Inez “Dizzy” Colson.
Hard work and upward striving were central to the family ethic. His father got a job at the Securities and Exchange Commission by attending law school at night, which in turn made it possible to send their son Chuck to attend the Browne & Nichols prep school in Cambridge.
Although he was educated alongside the children of the New England elite, the young Charles Colson took delight in defying convention. He claimed he refused a full scholarship to Harvard, a decision an admissions officer told him no one had ever made before.
He went to Brown University, where he became a champion debater and leader of the Young Republicans, and later earned a law degree from George Washington University.
In June 1953, immediately after graduating with distinction from Brown, Colson joined the Marine Corps and married Nancy Billings. They divorced in 1963, leaving her with custody of the two younger children, Christian and Emily. The eldest child, Wendell, stayed with Colson.
In 1964, Colson married Patricia Ann Hughes, a secretary on the staff of Leverett Saltonstall, the senior senator for Massachusetts. There were no children from this marriage, which lasted until Colson’s death. Besides his wife, survivors include his three children and five grandchildren.
A moderate Republican, Saltonstall gave Colson his first big break in politics, hiring the young lawyer as his administrative assistant in 1956. Working for Saltonstall provided Colson with opportunities to meet then-Vice President Nixon.
In an oral history interview for the Nixon library, Colson said he was impressed by Nixon’s conservative ideals and “wonderful mind.”
“I was dazzled by the man,” he said.
The rising political operative was also in regular touch with the Massachusetts junior senator, John F. Kennedy, who “showed me some of the tricks of the trade.” During the 1960 election, Colson set up a bogus committee that urged voters to elect “Kennedy and Saltonstall” rather than the Republican ticket of “Nixon and Saltonstall.”
It proved to be an effective strategy: After starting way behind, Saltonstall was re-elected.
“We mailed every Irish name we could find in the phone book,” Colson recalled. “That was my introduction to politics. It was baptism by fire.”
He switched his allegiance back to Nixon in 1964, writing a long memo that described how the defeated Republican candidate of 1960 could make a political comeback. Nixon responded by inviting Colson to New York for a strategy session. Although he eventually decided not to run in 1964, he viewed Colson as “fresh blood” and invited him to join the 1968 campaign.
‘I was the loose cannon’
Colson moved to the White House after Nixon’s election victory as special counsel to the president and a counterweight to the “Berlin Wall” of H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman.
Colson’s primary job was to form ties with outside groups, going around the mainstream media to assemble a “new populist majority,” but Nixon came to rely on the former Marine captain to cut through the bureaucracy and get things done.
“I was the loose cannon,” Colson recalled, adding that the president “would give me things to do, and Haldeman would never know it. He was threatened.”
In his autobiography, “The Ends of Power,” Haldeman wrote that Colson “encouraged the dark impulses in Nixon’s mind and acted on those impulses instead of ignoring them and letting them die.” Former press secretary Ron Ziegler complained that Colson “would take an off-the-cuff Nixon instruction literally and implement it.”
Colson was proud of his reputation for political ruthlessness, summed up by a Green Beret slogan that he affixed to the den of his McLean house: “When you’ve got ’em by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.”
Eager to demonstrate his loyalty to Nixon, he confirmed the accuracy of the “walk over my grandmother” quote in an August 1972 memo to his staff that quickly was leaked to the press.
In his August 2007 Nixon library interview, Colson recalled that Nixon once described him as the son he never had, and added, “I felt the same emotional bond with him.”
“There were other times I brought out the dark side of Nixon,” he acknowledged. “You did not have to work very hard to bring it out. It was always close to the surface. . . . His first reaction was to fight back, to get even with people.” But he insisted that Haldeman and others shared the blame. “What [Nixon] needed was people who would give him a more measured reaction.”
Missions that Mr. Colson undertook for the president ranged from leaking damaging and untrue rumors about Federal Reserve Chairman Arthur Burns to tracking down a photograph of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., dancing with a starlet in Paris.
Most fatefully of all, he eagerly agreed to Nixon’s order to blacken the reputation of former Pentagon official Ellsberg, who was suspected of the Pentagon Papers leak.
“Get Colson in,” Nixon instructed his chief of staff in a taped meeting in the Oval Office on June 17, 1971. “He’s the best. It’s the Colson type of man that you need.”
To assist him in the job of “nailing” Ellsberg, Colson recruited a retired CIA operative and novelist named E. Howard Hunt, a former Brown University classmate. Hunt teamed up with former FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy and a group of right-wing Cuban emigres to burglarize the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist and plan a fire at the Brookings Institution in Washington as a decoy for recovering leaked government documents.
The same team broke into the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate building in Washington in June 1972, triggering the scandal that led to Nixon’s resignation two years later.
On this occasion, however, Colson’s involvement was tangential. He had phoned the Committee to Re-elect the President in February 1972, urging approval for an unspecified “intelligence program” proposed by Liddy and Hunt but did not have an operational role in the Watergate break-in.
“He was too smart to do anything as silly as Watergate, although he was responsible for the initial hiring of Hunt,” said Aitken. Nevertheless, Colson’s reputation as a “dirty tricks” specialist led to his resignation from the White House staff in March 1973.
Conversion to evangelical Christianity
In June 1974, Colson pled guilty to a single charge of “disseminating derogatory information to the press” about Ellsberg while he was a criminal defendant. He was sentenced to one to three years imprisonment.
Colson attributed his guilty plea to his conversion to evangelical Christianity on the night of Aug. 12, 1973, by a close friend, Thomas L. Phillips, then-chairman of the defense contractor Raytheon, and the powerful influence of a book by C.S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity.”
Colson said another turning point in his faith was a probing interview in May 1974 conducted by Mike Wallace of the CBS News program “60 Minutes.” Wallace asked about the “morality” of working for a White House engaged in intimidation and smear campaigns and asked whether Colson was truly living up his Christian beliefs.
Colson later described feeling gradually “stripped and broken” of his old combative habits and decided not to fight the criminal charges any longer, despite urging by his family to beat the lawsuit and return to a “normal” life.
“Hubris became the mark of the Nixon man because hubris was the quality Nixon admired most,” Colson wrote in “Born Again.” He added that he “was willing at times to blink at certain ethical standards” because “ ‘Chuck will get it done’ was the phrase I so loved to hear in the White House.”
News of his rebirth was greeted with skepticism and even hilarity by many columnists, including the humorist Art Buchwald, who imagined a prayer session between Colson and the grandmother he once vowed to run over in the process of helping Nixon.
“Shall we kneel together?” Colson asked.
“Not me,” his grandmother replied. “I haven’t been able to kneel since you screamed at me, ‘Four more years’ and then put your Oldsmobile into drive.”
According to Aitken, doubts about the sincerity of Colson’s conversion were put to rest by his subsequent actions on behalf of prisoners around the world. The Prison Fellowship Ministries founded by Colson in the United States in 1976 grew into a worldwide movement with branches in more than 110 different countries. It is now based in the Loudoun County community of Lansdowne.
“Look at the incredible good he has done,” said Aitken. “He completely changed the face of faith-based caring for prisoners and offenders, not just in America, but across the world.”
In addition to befriending prisoners and converting them to Christianity, Colson established a rehabilitation program that aimed to cut the recidivism rate. He publicly opposed the death penalty and called for alternatives to incarceration, particularly for nonviolent offenders, who make up a significant portion of the prison population.
Leading Republican politicians including President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain of Arizona cited Colson’s work with prisoners as evidence that faith-based initiatives can help to solve America’s most intractable problems.
Bush invited Colson to the White House in June 2003 to present the results of a scientific study by a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, Byron Johnson, that concluded that participants in Prison Fellowship programs were much less likely to return to prison than other former inmates.
Other experts have questioned the validity of such studies and caution against drawing sweeping conclusions.
“There is a self-selection problem,” said Allen Beck, a criminologist who has served as a consultant for the U.S. Department of Justice and several state prison systems. “The inmates who sign up for such programs tend to people who are a relatively good risk in the first place. Trying to ascertain cause and effect is very difficult.”
Colson remained on good terms with Nixon and visited him at the president’s home in San Clemente, Calif., following his release from prison. He recalled that Nixon seemed unaware why he had gone to prison. When Colson explained that he had been convicted for distributing derogatory information about Ellsberg, Nixon interjected, “but I told you to do that.” Both men roared with laughter.
Asked whether he felt “disappointment” with Nixon, Colson replied: “Sure, of course, but I also understood the man. Families disappoint one another sometimes, but you are still family.”