Charles Colson, Watergate Figure Who Turned to God, Dies at 80

Charles Colson, Watergate Figure Who Turned to God
Charles Colson, former advisor to U.S. President Richard Nixon, testifies before a special investigative commission on the presidential campaign, in Washington on July 22, 1974. Source: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Charles Colson, an influential aide to President Richard Nixon who became a minister to prisoners after spending seven months behind bars for his role in the Watergate scandal, has died. He was 80.

Prison Fellowship, a Leesburg, Virginia-based organization Colson founded, confirmed he died yesterday. He underwent surgery on March 31 to remove a pool of clotted blood on the surface of his brain.

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.”

Plea Agreement

On June 3, 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 Defense 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 told reporters outside court.

‘Born Again’

He followed through on that plan. Released from prison early, his sentence shortened by a judge 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, which aims “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 panelist for the Washington Post’s “On Faith” section.

Help From Bush

In 2000, Florida Governor Jeb Bush restored the civil rights, including the ability to vote and practice law, which Colson had lost with his criminal conviction.

Charles Wendell Colson was born on Oct. 16, 1931, in Boston, an only child whose father, Wendell, worked as a lawyer in the Boston office of the Securities and Exchange Commission, according to the Times profile.

He was active in student government at Brown University, graduating with honors in 1953. Following peacetime service in the U.S. Marine Corps, he joined the staff of Republican Senator Leverett Saltonstall of Massachusetts. While working on Capitol Hill he earned his law degree through night classes at George Washington University.

He practiced law at Gadsby Hannah LLP in Boston -- part of McCarter & English LLP since 2006 -- before becoming counsel and special assistant to Nixon, in charge of relationships with labor and other interest groups. After more than four years working for the president, he returned to practicing law in March 1973. A year later he was one of seven Nixon aides indicted by the Watergate grand jury.

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.

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