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 the Lansdowne, Va.-based Prison Fellowship Ministries 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 the committee'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.
The efforts to discredit Ellsberg included use of Nixon's plumbers — a covert group established to investigate White House leaks — in 1971 to break into the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist to look for information that could discredit Ellsberg's anti-war efforts.
The Ellsberg burglary was revealed during the course of the Watergate investigation and became an element in the ongoing scandal. Colson pleaded guilty in 1974 to obstruction of justice in connection with attempts to discredit Ellsberg, though charges were dropped that Colson actually played a role in the burglary of Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office. Charges related to the actual Watergate burglary and cover-up were also dropped. He served seven months in prison.
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."
Ellsberg, for his part, said in an interview that Colson never apologized to him and did not respond to several efforts Ellsberg made over the years to get in touch with him. Ellsberg said he still believes that Colson's guilty plea was not a matter of contrition so much as an effort to head off even more serious allegations that Colson had sought to hire thugs to administer a beating against Ellsberg — an allegation that Colson states in his book was believed by prosecutors despite his denial.
"I have no reason to doubt his evangelism," Ellsberg said of Colson. "But I don't think he felt any kind of regret" for what he had done, except remorse that he had been ineffective and got caught.
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