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Watergate figure Charles Colson has died at 80

By Jessica Gresko

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, April 22 2012 3:46 a.m. MDT

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.

"I think if he's going to be remembered for anything, he's going to be remembered as a person who had a complete turnaround in his life," he said.

While faith was a large part of Colson's message, he also tackled such topics as prison overpopulation and criticized the death penalty, though he thought it could be justified in rare cases. He said those convicted of nonviolent crimes should be put on community-service projects instead of being locked up.

He wrote more than 20 books, including "Born Again: What Really Happened to the White House Hatchet Man," which was turned into a movie.

"(W)ho was I to moralize, to preach to others?" Colson wrote. "I'd botched it, was one of those who helped bring on Watergate and was in prison to prove it. Yet maybe that very fact ... could give me some insights that would help others."

Royalties from all his books have gone to his ministry program, as did the $1 million Templeton prize, which he won in 1993.

Colson also wrote a syndicated column, and started his daily radio feature, BreakPoint, which airs on more than 1,000 radio networks, according to the PFM Web site.

While he admitted he'd been wrong to do so much of Nixon's dirty work, he remained embittered at one of the sources who'd exposed the wrongdoing. In 2005, when it was revealed that Mark Felt was the infamous "Deep Throat" responsible for the fall of the Nixon administration, Colson was disgusted, having worked so closely with Felt. "He goes out of his life on a very sour note, not as a hero," Colson said.

Colson, a Boston native earned his bachelor's degree from Brown University in 1953 and served as a captain in the Marine Corps from 1953 to 1955. In 1959, he received his doctorate with honors from George Washington University.

He spent several years as an administrative assistant to Massachusetts Sen. Leverett Saltonstall. Nixon made him special counsel in November 1969.

In the mid-1990s Colson teamed up with the Rev. Richard Neuhaus to write "Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium," calling for Catholics and evangelicals to unite and accept each other as Christians.

In February 2005, Colson was named one of Time magazine's "25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America."

Time commended Colson for helping to define compassionate conservatism through his campaign for humane prison conditions and called him one of "evangelicalism's more thoughtful public voices."

"After decades of relative abstention, Colson is back in power politics," Time wrote.

Mark Earley, a former Virginia attorney general who became president and chief executive officer of Prison Fellowship Ministries after his failed gubernatorial run in 2001, said the influence of Colson's work in his ministry is a different kind of power from what he had as Nixon's special counsel.

"Yet, it wasn't until he lost that power, what most people would call real 'power,' that Chuck began to make a real difference and exercise the only kind of influence that really matters," Earley said on BreakPoint.

"Prison Fellowship is possible only because its founder, Chuck Colson, was forced to personally identify with those people who hold a special place in God's heart: prisoners and their families."

In October 2000, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush restored Colson's civil rights, allowing him to vote, sit on a jury, run for office and practice law. Colson had a home in Naples, Fla., and Bush called him "a great guy ... a great Floridian."

Ultimately, Colson credited the Watergate scandal with enriching his life.

God "used that experience — Watergate — to raise up a ministry that is reaching hundreds of thousands of people," Colson said in the late 1990s. "So I'm probably one of the few guys around that's saying, 'I'm glad for Watergate.'"

On the Net:

Prison Fellowship Ministries: http://www.pfm.org

Associated Press writers Matthew Barakat and Will Lester and AP Radio's Martin Di Caro contributed to this story.

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