Charles W. Colson, who as a political saboteur for President Richard M. Nixon masterminded some of the dirty tricks that led to the president’s downfall, then emerged from prison to become an important evangelical leader, saying he had been “born again,” died on Saturday in Falls Church, Va. He was 80.
The cause was complications of a brain hemorrhage, according to Prison Fellowship Ministries, which Mr. Colson founded in Lansdowne, Va. He lived in Leesburg, Va. and Naples, Fla.
Mr. Colson had brain surgery to remove a clot after becoming ill on March 30 while speaking at a conference, according to Jim Liske, the group’s chief executive.
Mr. Colson was sent to prison after pleading guilty to obstructing justice in one of the criminal plots that undid the Nixon administration. After having what he called his religious awakening behind bars, he spent much of the rest of his life ministering to prisoners, preaching the Gospels and forging a coalition of Republican politicians, evangelical church leaders and Roman Catholic conservatives that has had a pronounced influence on American politics.
It was a remarkable reversal putting it mildly; others would explain the conversion process of Chuck Colson as divine intervention.
Mr. Colson was a 38-year-old Washington lawyer when he joined the Nixon White House as a special counsel in November 1969. He quickly caught the president’s eye. His “instinct for the political jugular and his ability to get things done made him a lightning rod for my own frustrations,” Nixon wrote in his memoir, “RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon.” In 1970, the president made him his “political point man” for “imaginative dirty tricks.”
“When I complained to Colson, I felt confident that something would be done,” Nixon wrote. “I was rarely disappointed.”
Mr. Colson and his colleagues “started vying for favor on Nixon’s dark side,” Bryce Harlow, a former counselor to the president, said in an oral history. “Colson started talking about trampling his grandmother’s grave for Nixon and showing he was as mean as they come.”
As the president’s re-election campaign geared up in 1971, “everybody went macho,” Mr. Harlow said. “It was the ‘in’ thing to swagger and threaten.”
Few played political hardball more fiercely than Mr. Colson. When a deluded janitor from Milwaukee shot Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama on the presidential campaign trail in Maryland in May 1972, Nixon asked about the suspect’s politics. Mr. Colson replied, “Well, he’s going to be a left-winger by the time we get through.” He proposed a political frame-up: planting leftist pamphlets in the would-be killer’s apartment. “Good,” the president said, as recorded on a White House tape. “Keep at that.”
The subterfuge began to unravel after Mr. Hunt and five other C.I.A. and F.B.I. veterans were arrested in June 1972 after a botched burglary and wiretapping operation at Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington. To this day, no one knows whether Nixon authorized the break-in or precisely what the burglars wanted.
“When I write my memoirs,” Mr. Colson told Mr. Hunt in a November 1972 telephone conversation, “I’m going to say that the Watergate was brilliantly conceived as an escapade that would divert the Democrats’ attention from the real issues, and therefore permit us to win a landslide that we probably wouldn’t have won otherwise.” The two men laughed.
That month, Nixon won that landslide. On election night, the president watched the returns with Mr. Colson and the White House chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman. “I couldn’t feel any sense of jubilation,” Mr. Colson said in a 1992 television interview. “Here we were, supposedly winning, and it was more like we’d lost.”
For those of us who were around during this huge event — most stated that America had just been popped, or America lost her innocence — maybe yes maybe no. This huge captivating event with the credit of course going to Woodward and Bernstein who were reporting darn near daily, in reality however, there have been far worse happenings in the administration’s of late. Many wonder if the same issue were to come up today — and it does from time to time — would it yield the same results? Most agree that this entire ordeal was a hiccup compared to what we have experienced by other individuals.