WASHINGTON – He was described as the evil genius of the Nixon administration, and spent the better part of a year in prison for a Watergate-related conviction. His proclamations following his release that he was a new man, redeemed by his religious faith, were met with more than skepticism by those angered at the abuses he had perpetrated as one of Nixon’s hatchet men.
But Charles Chuck Colson spent the next 35 years steadfast in his efforts to evangelize to a part of society scorned just as he was. And he became known perhaps just as much for his efforts to minister to prison inmates as for his infamy with Watergate.
Colson died Saturday at age 80. His death was confirmed by Jim Liske, chief executive of Prison Fellowship Ministries in Lansdowne, Va., that Colson founded. Liske said the preliminary cause of death was complications from brain surgery Colson had at the end of March. He underwent the surgery to remove a clot after becoming ill March 30 while speaking at a conference.
Colson once famously said he’d walk over his grandmother to get the president elected to a second term. In 1972 the Washington Post called him one of the most powerful presidential aides, variously described as a troubleshooter and as a master of dirty tricks.’
I shudder to think of what I’d been if I had not gone to prison, Colson said in 1993. Lying on the rotten floor of a cell, you know it’s not prosperity or pleasure that’s important, but the maturing of the soul.
He helped run the Committee to Re-elect the President when it set up an effort to gather intelligence on the Democratic Party. The arrest of CREEP’s security director, James W. McCord, and four other men burglarizing the Democratic National Committee offices in 1972 set off the scandal that led to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974.
But it was actions that preceded the actual Watergate break-in that resulted in Colson’s criminal conviction. Colson pleaded guilty to efforts to discredit Pentagon analyst Daniel Ellsberg. It was Ellsberg who had leaked the secret Defense Department study of Vietnam that became known as the Pentagon Papers.
Before Colson went to prison, he became a born-again Christian, but critics said his post-scandal redemption was a ploy to get his sentence reduced. The Boston Globe wrote in 1973, If Mr. Colson can repent of his sins, there just has to be hope for everyone.
Colson stayed with his faith after Watergate and went on to win praise – including the prestigious Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion – for his efforts to use it to help others. Colson later called going to prison a great blessing.
He created the Prison Fellowship Ministries in 1976 to minister to prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families. It runs work-release programs, marriage seminars and classes to help prisoners after they get out. An international offshoot established chapters around the world.
You can’t leave a person in a steel cage and expect something good to come out of him when he is released, Colson said in 2001.
Michael Cromartie, director of the Evangelical Studies Project at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, worked with Colson at Prison Fellowship Ministries. He said he’s certain Colson’s faith was genuine.
Before he went off to prison, he had a born-again evangelical experience, a conversion experience, he said. It produced guffaws in official Washington, Cromartie said, but Colson demonstrated he was serious.
When Colson emerged from prison, he had a lot of offers to do other things that would have made him a lot of money, but he wanted to serve people who had been forgotten in society, Cromartie said.