Charles Colson’s death at 80 on April 21 unlocked a lot of memories for Americans of a certain age, mostly about Watergate.
Colson was a high-ranking advisor to President Richard M. Nixon, best known for a crack about his campaign strategy, “I’d walk over my grandmother to assure Nixon’s re-election.” He was the dean of the dirty tricks school of politics which, though not invented by Nixon, was employed with singular creativity during his era.
Some of Colson’s tricks turned out to be illegal and he pleaded guilty to obstructing the investigation of a break-in at the office of Dr. Daniel Ellsberg, leaker of the Pentagon Papers and a Nixon critic. Charges that Colson had orchestrated the break-in were dismissed for lack of concrete evidence, but he was ordered to prison in 1974 and served seven months of a three-year sentence.
When I interviewed Colson four years later, I discovered the fastest way to witness his famous red-faced sneer was to suggest the Alan Wood Prison was a country club for white collar criminals. “It wasn’t,” he hissed, glaring at me.
Whatever jail had been like for him, almost everyone knows that it inspired Colson – by then famously re-born as a Christian – to found Prison Fellowship, an evangelical organization to lead prisoners to Jesus.
I met Colson in his small Prison Fellowship office in the late fall of 1977. Sitting in the waiting room with me was Ken Clawson, another Watergate figure (best known for his plea for mercy to Bob Woodward, “I have a wife and a family and a dog and a cat!”) His presence made me wonder if all Watergate figures hung out together, or if he was seeking spiritual guidance from Colson. But Colson, in a starched button-down shirt and paisley tie, emerged before I could talk to Clawson and escorted me to a chair in front of his desk.
Except for his reaction to my country club reference, Colson was charming and soft spoken during out hour-long conversation. He was disarmingly likeable; I was so disarmed, in fact, that the article I wrote about him in the January 1978 issue of The American Baptist magazine outraged most of my liberal friends who doubted the sincerity of his conversion. American Baptist prison chaplains were incensed that I gave attention to Colson rather than to them, and Bill Cober, head of the American Baptist Home Mission Society, was furious that Colson had been quoted as saying Walter Rauschenbusch – a Baptist social activist, pacifist and saint – was not Christ centered. Colson was flat wrong on that point and I argued with him about it but elected not to include my own views in the article. Colson listened politely to my insistence that Rauschenbusch was devoutly Christ centered and shrugged non-committally.
I stayed in touch with Colson for several years, giving rise to rumors among my Baptist colleagues that he and I were buds. He once asked me if I’d like a job writing articles under his byline, which was flattering but the conversation never developed into a bonafide offer. Later, when I asked Colson to write something for The American Baptist, I got a glimpse of what the job might have been like. He quickly accepted and told me to contact his chief of staff. I called and began telling this obviously beleaguered staffer what I needed. He was silent for several moments before he drew an exasperated breath. “Shit,” he said. “Does Chuck think he doesn’t give us enough to do?”
Over the years Charles Colson drifted away from the mere Christianity of his idol, C.S. Lewis, and became associated with the Christian right-wing. His evangelical tactics also hardened to the extent that some of his critics suggested “Colson would walk over his grandmother for Jesus.”
But for a brief period years ago, I had nothing but the friendliest of feelings for the guy. My admiration – for better or for worse – is all too detectable in my editorial of January 1978:
Chuck Colson and the Social Gospel
A secretary had just told me that Mr. Colson would be delayed, and I settled in my chair to relax a few more minutes.
This is really strange, I told myself, listening to my friend Fred Rhodes as he bantered reassuringly. It wasn’t so long ago that I was a student protesting the Vietnam War, and casting helpless glances at the Nixon White House. I had been told about the men inside, about their callous indifference to the suffering in Vietnam. Sometimes I had nearly wept with frustration because the men in the White House wouldn’t even listen to our pleas – had, in fact, called us bums.
One of those men had been Charles W. Colson, special counsel to the President. White House tough guy. The archfiend. One of the most powerful men in the world.
Unexpectedly, he came through the door. The face I used to imagine twisted into a perpetual snarl was smiling warmly. His hair was slightly longer than it had been in the White House days, but it was carefully groomed. His blue shirt was neatly pressed and I was surprised to discover that he is about six inches taller than he looks on television.
“Chuck Colson,” he said evenly, extending his hand. Soon I was sitting at his side, sticking a microphone in his face.
I had to get it off my chest. I told Chuck Colson about my errant youth on the field of protest, and admitted that I still felt pretty much the same way I did then. “Is there a ground of reconciliation between us?”
He laughed. “Sure,” he said without hesitation. “Jesus Christ.” And the strangeness began to melt away.
Reconciliation. People who have read Chuck Colson’s best-selling book, Born Again, are familiar with that theme of reconciliation. It is one of the remarkable distinctives of his testimony. Here was the White House “hatchet man,” the Nixon functionary who was supposed to have said (he never did) that he would run over his grandmother to assure Nixon’s re-election. The story has now been told time and again how Colson, sensing the emptiness of his life, invited Jesus Christ to take it over, how that new life in Christ had led Colson to deep fellowship with former Senator Harold Hughes and Federal Reserve Chairman Arthur Burns – men who had been his enemies The story includes countless occasions when men and women who had been an opposite political poles from Colson had rallied to his side when he needed to be “Christ’s Man” and accept a prison sentence for his Watergate misdeeds.
Few people in public life have symbolized God’s power of redemption and reconciliation more than Chuck Colson. And I would have to confess that I was slightly moved to be sitting in Colson’s office. The former student protestor who Had been immobilized by a sense of powerlessness and insignificance; the former White House aide who had been intoxicated by his sense of power and position. And we were easily exploring a common, familiar ground against which all other differences fade: Jesus Christ.
In fact, I found it a bit disquieting to find myself in such agreement with Colson. I had gone to Washington at the invitation of Fred Rhodes, former government official and former vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention, in order to do a story on the Prison Fellowship founded by Colson and of which Fred is president.
As I was asking Chuck Colson about the Prison Fellowship and its services to society, it occurred to me that he was beginning to sound a bit non-Nixonian. I pointed out that the Prison Fellowship and its efforts at reform sounded like the Rauschenbusch Social Gospel. “Will somebody someday accuse you of being a political liberal?” I asked?
“Rauschenbusch believed man could do good in his own right,” he said slowly. “He did not have Christ as the center of his life. And I think the disciples of Rauschenbusch down through the years have … largely been consumed by their own social concerns, but believed they were doing it by themselves, not Christ.”
He noted the other side of the spectrum, the church’s conservative wing, people who emphasize life style, soul saving, salvation.
“I come out somewhere in the middle,” he mused. “So long as He lives in me and leads me, it is Christ and not Chuck Colson. But I believe that Jesus Christ calls us to a social concern … We are commanded to love the world, and it seems to me that we are being called to a lot more than sitting in a pew, praying one hour a week, and being happy that we are saved and going to heaven. I believe that Christianity hasn’t failed, it just hasn’t been tried.”
As our interview ended, I sheepishly shoved toward him my copy of Born Again for an autograph. As he scribbled on the flyleaf, he chuckled, and asked, “Well? Am I a liberal?”
I stammered something noncommittally. But it was clear to me that there weren’t many differences on things that really mattered between the former liberal student and the former conservative presidential aide.
That may have been a small, even routine miracle for those who trust Jesus Christ. But it continues to astonish me.