WASHINGTON — Watergate felon and prison reformer Charles W. Colson, who died Saturday at age 80 in Northern Virginia, was two people.
He was Richard Nixon’s “hatchet man,” the president’s “evil genius,” who by his own admission was “ruthless in getting things done” in the Watergate years, when the things that he and others in the White House were getting done would become a national disgrace and send Colson to prison.
And he was a born-again Christian, the founder of the world’s largest prison ministry, an “unfailingly kind but tremendously courageous” intellectual leader who became the “William F. Buckley” of the evangelical movement.
Colson died from complications resulting from a brain hemorrhage at Fairfax Inova Hospital, a spokesman for his ministry said. He had undergone surgery three weeks ago to remove a pool of clotted blood on his brain.
“He had this reputation as being this ruthless guy. Even Richard Nixon thought he was ruthless,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, who compared Colson to Buckley. “That is so different than the Chuck Colson I knew. He was the least ego-driven and one of the most friendly, kind people I’ve ever known.”
The fact that Colson was “born again” into evangelical Christianity as he was about to be charged in the Watergate scandal caused much snickering in the press. But Colson’s conversion proved genuine and lasting. After serving seven months, mostly at the Maxwell Correctional Facility in Alabama, he founded Prison Fellowship Ministries, which says it operates in 1,367 prisons in the U.S. and has more than 200,000 inmates participating in its programs.
Colson turned PFM into a respected conglomerate of organizations and programs dedicated to serving prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families and encouraging them to embrace Jesus Christ. And as his organization grew, so did his fame with evangelicals. His daily four-minute BreakPoint radio commentary was carried by 1,300 stations.
But, unlike the Pat Robertsons or Jerry Falwells of the evangelical movement, Colson never sought the limelight. “I haven’t sought publicity in the Christian world,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1987. “I’ve stayed out of religious politics. Falwell is in the middle of it. Jim and Tammy Bakker, Pat Robertson …. I’ve stayed away. It hasn’t been my calling.”
And unlike some others in his world, he apparently never amassed great personal wealth from his work. He took an annual salary of $113,000 from his prison groups and donated all royalties from his 30 books, substantial speaking fees, and the $1 million Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion he was awarded in London in 1993 to his prison fellowship.
But whether Colson will be known more for his good works or his bad may depend on which audience is remembering.
For the survivors of the Watergate era, Colson was one of the central figures in the scandals generally grouped together under the rubric of Watergate. Appointed special counsel to the Republican president in 1969, he was the author of the famous Nixon Enemies List. He was a central figure behind the 1971 burglary of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrists’ office, a vicious attempt to discredit the source of the “Pentagon Papers” Vietnam War documents.
John Dean, Nixon’s White House counsel and later nemesis, said in an interview that Colson was “the catalyst” for the more famous break-in at Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington. Dean said Colson pressured the president’s re-election committee to approve the “intelligence activities” of G. Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt, leaders of the so-called White House plumbers.
Dean, who himself became Colson’s target when Dean started to cooperate with Watergate prosecutors, said that Colson’s ruthlessness may have been overstated.
“He was extremely aggressive in trying to get Nixon’s policies and programs passed, as well as for his politics to succeed,” Dean said. “He was very bright, very able, and fairly expedient. He didn’t have strong moral qualms about what he was doing.”
Dean said though Colson “tried to destroy me,” the two “buried the hatchet” while they were both being held at Fort Holabird in Baltimore. “Chuck apologized for it and said he was sorry, that he put out a lot of false information and regretted doing it.”
Dean said that the two were friendly for a number of years, until Colson despaired of converting him to his evangelical beliefs.
Less charitable to Colson is Ellsberg. Though Colson was charged in both with the Watergate and the Ellsberg burglaries, he was allowed to plead guilty only to obstruction of justice in the Ellsberg matter.
Ellsberg, who like Colson had been a young officer in the Marines, said in an interview that Colson was also behind a failed plot to have him beaten up during an anti-war demonstration at the Capitol by a dozen Cubans brought to Washington by Hunt and Liddy.
Ellsberg said that Colson always denied involvement in that plot, despite testimony from others to the contrary and, while he admitted doing many bad things during Watergate, he failed to adequately own up to the specifics of what he had done.
“In short, I think Colson had a lot he could have told. His ‘born again’ experience didn’t entirely take when it came to coming clean,” Ellsberg said.
Colson was born Oct. 16, 1931, outside Boston, the grandson of Swedish and English immigrants. He graduated from Brown University and, after serving from 1953 to 1955 in the Marines, where he became its youngest-ever company commander, went to work for Sen. Leveret Saltonstall, R-Mass., while going to law school at George Washington University in District of Columbia at night.
After starting his own, successful law firm in Washington in the 1960s, he was appointed special counsel to Nixon in 1969.
After he got out of prison in 1975 he published his first book, the memoir “Born Again,” a bestseller that was made into a movie.
In his later years he lived in Naples, Fla., with his second wife, Patricia Ann Hughes, who survives him. They also maintained an apartment outside Washington. He is also survived by three children, from his first marriage to Nancy Billings, and five grandchildren.
Though always conservative, except when he was advocating for fewer prisons and for the release of nonviolent prisoners, he was not very active politically on the national stage after his White House years. But he told the New York Times two years ago that, though he had had high hopes for President Barack Obama, he had become “totally disillusioned” with the president. “I think he has turned out to be an ideologue,” he said.
Though Colson will have a split legacy, for evangelicals he will be remembered as a hero.
“If there were an evangelical Mt. Rushmore, Chuck would be on it,” Land said.