He was a fascinating figure, and often not in a good way. Chuck Colson was the Karl Rove of the early 1970s, an amoral master of dirty tricks with a nose for backroom power. He called himself the “hatchet man” for the president, and he was part of the warped and criminal culture in the Richard Nixon White House. He compiled the famous Nixon enemies list, one of the most paranoid documents in recent political history. As such, Colson helped put on paper the same set of bogeymen that right-wingers love to shout about today: newspapers, unions, Hollywood. (Paul Newman!)
Colson is also the man who ordered the White House “plumbers” to break into the office of the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers, looking for dirt they could use to discredit him. A classic Rovian touch: ignore the truth and attack the opponent.
But in 1973, Colson had a religious conversion and it changed his life. He pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and went to jail for seven months. When he came out he founded Prison Fellowship Ministries and spent the rest of his life working to improve prison conditions and to convert prisoners (and others) to Christianity.
He certainly never lost his edge: he was a forceful speaker and a firm evangelical. He also remained a staunch political conservative. Earlier this year he suggested that the Affordable Care Act wasn’t biblical (“I think there is a truly biblical argument to be made that health care is best handled at a state and local level.”) He argued that Harvard University couldn’t teach ethics because it embraced “philosophical relativism” instead of admitting that the Judeo-Christian way was #1.
Back in 2002 he was one of the signers of an absurd letter giving cover to George W. Bush to plunge ahead with the Iraq War. (The letter, among other things, assured Bush it would be a war of “just and noble intent.”)
One wishes that as a man who did his level best to subvert democracy while in the White House, and who spent a mere 7 months in prison as a result, would have had the grace to focus on his ministry and stay out of politics completely. It was not to be.
To speak well of the dead, I’ll say: hats off to him for pleading guilty to obstruction of justice back in the day. And his many years of work with prisoners speaks for itself.
Here’s a little personal blurb the New York Times did with him in 2010. And in the interests of equal time, here’s a video from the Colson Center showing his very best side:
See our biography of Chuck Colson »