Death of key Watergate conspirator Charles Colson
CHARLES COLSON, an influential aide to US president Richard Nixon who became a pastor to prisoners after spending seven months behind bars for his role in the Watergate scandal, has died. He was 80.
Colson was known for hardball political tactics even before the Watergate scandal. The list of more than 200 Nixon “enemies” was drafted in his office, and he declared in a memorandum that he “would walk over my grandmother if necessary” to get Nixon re-elected in 1972, according to a 1974 New York Times profile.
“I came to regard Colson as an evil genius,” Jeb Stuart Magruder, Nixon’s deputy campaign manager, who also went to prison for Watergate, wrote in a 1974 memoir. “His brilliance was undeniable,” Magruder wrote, “but it was too often applied to encouraging Nixon’s darker side, his desire to lash out at his enemies, his instinct for the jugular. I would have to say that – granting always Nixon’s central responsibility for what happened in his administration – Colson was one of the men among his advisers most responsible for creating the climate that made Watergate possible, perhaps inevitable.”
On June 3rd, 1974, in a deal with the special Watergate prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, Colson pleaded guilty to a felony count of obstructing justice by disseminating negative information about Daniel Ellsberg, the defence department analyst who had leaked the Pentagon Papers, the military’s classified history of the Vietnam War. In exchange, prosecutors agreed to dismiss criminal conspiracy charges stemming from Colson’s alleged role in the 1971 burglary of the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.
In court, while being sentenced to one to three years in prison, Colson said Nixon “on numerous occasions urged me to disseminate damaging information about Daniel Ellsberg”. He said he was convinced that Nixon “believed he was acting in the national interest. I know I did.”
By the time of his sentencing – two months before Nixon’s resignation as president – Colson had converted to evangelical Christianity.
“I can work for the Lord in prison or out of prison, and that’s how I want to spend my life,” he said outside court.
He followed that plan through. Released from prison early, his sentence shortened following the death of his father, Colson got to work on his first book, Born Again, describing his spiritual conversion and his hopes to inspire others. “I’d botched it, was one of those who helped bring on Watergate and was in prison to prove it,” he wrote. “Yet maybe that very fact, plus some unusual things which had happened to me, could give me some insights that would help others. Could there be a purpose to all that had happened to me?”
In 1976, Colson founded Prison Fellowship “to seek the transformation of prisoners and their reconciliation to God, family and community through the power and truth of Jesus Christ”. He spread his message through books and a syndicated radio show and as a panellist for the Washington Post’s “On Faith” section.
He had two sons and one daughter with his first wife, the former Nancy Billings, a marriage that ended in divorce in 1964. Later that year he married the former Patricia Hughes.