"Few things are so deadly as a misguided sense of compassion." -- Charles Colson
Charles "Chuck" Wendell Colson (born October 16, 1931) is a Christian leader, cultural commentator, and author of at least 20 books, including several that have been recognized with ECPA Christian Book Awards.
As former Special Counsel for President Richard Nixon from 1969 to 1973, he is noted for being the first member of the Nixon administration to be incarcerated for Watergate-related charges. He was commonly named as one of the Watergate Seven, but was never charged with, or prosecuted for, any crime related to the Watergate break-in or its cover-up, although he did plead guilty to obstruction of justice in another case. He converted to Christianity in 1973, and the following year served seven months of a one-to-three year sentence in the federal Maxwell Prison in Alabama.
Colson's later life has been spent working with his non-profit organization devoted to prison ministry called "Prison Fellowship." Colson is also a public speaker and author. He is founder and chairman of the Wilberforce Forum, which is the "Christian worldview thinking, teaching, and advocacy arm of" Prison Fellowship, and includes Colson's daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint, now heard on a thousand outlets. The ministry conducts justice reform efforts through Justice Fellowship.
Colson has received 15 honorary doctorates and in 1993 was awarded the Templeton Prize, the world's largest annual award (over $1 million) in the field of religion, given to a person who "has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension". He donated this prize to further the work of Prison Fellowship, as he does all his speaking fees and royalties.
"Christians need to take the lead in educating people that children are gifts, as my autistic grandson most surely is. By going down the path we're currently on, we might one day get rid of genetic diseases, but only at the cost of our own humanity.""I'd walk over my own grandmother to re-elect Richard Nixon."
During World War II, Colson organized fund-raising campaigns in his school for the war effort that raised enough money to buy a Jeep for the army.
In 1948, Colson volunteered in the campaign to re-elect then-Governor of Massachusetts, Robert Bradford.
After attending Browne & Nichols School in Cambridge in 1949, he earned his B.A., with honors, from Brown University in 1953, and his J.D., with honors, from George Washington University in 1959.
Colson served in the United States Marine Corps from 1953 to 1955, reaching the rank of Captain. From 1955 to 1956, he was Assistant to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy . He then worked on the successful 1960 campaign of Leverett Saltonstall (R-Massachusetts) for the US Senate and was his Administrative Assistant from 1956 to 1961. In 1961 Colson founded the law firm of Colson & Morin, which swiftly grew to a Boston and Washington, D.C. presence with the addition of former Securities Exchange Commission chairman Edward Gadsby and former Raytheon Company general counsel Paul Hannah. Colson and Morin shortened the name to Gadsby & Hannah in late 1967. Colson left the firm to join the Nixon White House in January 1969.
Colson's first marriage, with Nancy Billings in 1953, bore three children: Wendell Ball II (born 1954), Christian Billings (1956) and Emily Ann (1958), before ending in divorce in 1964 after some years of separation. He married Patricia Ann Hughes on April 4, 1964.
In 1968, Colson served as counsel to presidential candidate Nixon's Key Issues Committee.
On November 6, 1969, Colson was appointed as Special Counsel to President Nixon.
Colson was responsible for inviting influential private special interest groups into the White House policy-making process and winning their support on specific issues. His office served as the President's political communications liaison with organized labor, veterans, farmers, conservationists, industrial organizations, citizen groups, and almost any organized lobbying group whose objectives were compatible with the Administration's. Colson's staff broadened the White House lines of communication with organized constituencies by arranging Presidential meetings and sending White House news releases of interest to the groups.
In addition to his liaison and political duties, Colson's responsibilities included: performing special assignments for the President, such as drafting legal briefs on particular issues, reviewing Presidential appointments, and suggesting names for White House guest lists. His work also included major lobbying efforts on such issues as construction of an antiballistic missile system, the President's Vietnamization program, and the Administration's revenue-sharing proposal.
Colson was known as President Nixon's "hatchet man." Slate magazine writer David Plotz described Colson as "Richard Nixon's hard man, the 'evil genius' of an evil administration."Colson has written that he was "valuable to the President ... because I was willing ... to be ruthless in getting things done". This is perhaps complimentary when read in comparison to the descriptions of Colson which pepper the work of Rolling Stone National Affairs' Political Correspondent, Hunter S. Thompson during the period.Colson authored the 1971 memo listing Nixon's major political opponents, later known as Nixon's Enemies List. A quip that "Colson would walk over his own grandmother if necessary" mutated into claims in news stories that Colson had boasted that he would run over his own grandmother to re-elect Nixon. Plotz reports that Colson sought to hire Teamsters thugs to beat up anti-war demonstrators. Colson proposed firebombing the Brookings Institution and stealing politically damaging documents while firefighters put the fire out.
Colson's voice, archives from April 1969, was heard in the 2004 movie Going Upriver deprecating the anti-war efforts of John Kerry. Colson's orders were to "Destroy the young demagogue before he becomes another Ralph Nader." In a phone conversation with President Nixon on April 28, 1971, Colson said, "This fellow Kerry that they had on last week...He turns out to be really quite a phony."
Watergate and Ellsberg scandals
Colson also became involved in the Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP or CREEP). At a CRP meeting on March 21, 1971, it was agreed to spend $250,000 on "intelligence gathering" on the Democratic Party. Colson and John Ehrlichman appointed E. Howard Hunt to the White House Special Operations Unit which had been organized to stop leaks in the Nixon administration. Hunt headed up the Plumbers' burglary of Pentagon Papers-leaker Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office in September 1971. The Pentagon Papers were military documents about the Vietnam War which helped increase opposition to the war. Colson hoped that revelations about Ellsberg could be used to discredit the anti-Vietnam War cause. Colson admitted to leaking information from Ellsberg's confidential FBI file to the press, but denied organizing Hunt's burglary of Ellsberg's office. He expressed regret for attempting to cover up this incident in his 2005 book, The Good Life.
On March 10, 1973, Colson resigned from the White House to return to the private practice of law, as Senior Partner at the law firm of Colson and Shapiro, Washington, D.C.
On March 1, 1974, Colson was indicted for conspiring to cover up the Watergate burglary.
As Colson was facing arrest, his close friend, Raytheon Company chairman of the board Thomas L. Phillips, gave Colson a copy of Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, which, after reading it, led Colson to become an evangelical Christian. Colson then joined a prayer group led by Douglas Coe, and including Democrat Senator Harold Hughes, Republican congressman Al Quie and Democrat congressman Graham B. Purcell, Jr.. When news of the conversion emerged much later, several U.S. newspapers, as well as Newsweek, The Village Voice, and Time, ridiculed the conversion, claiming that it was a ploy to reduce his sentence. In his 1975 memoir Born Again. Colson noted that a few writers published sympathetic stories, as in the case of a widely reprinted UPI article, "From Watergate to Inner Peace."
After taking the Fifth Amendment on the advice of his lawyers during early testimony, Colson found himself torn between his desire to be truthful and his desire to avoid conviction on charges of which he believed himself innocent. Following prayer and consultation with his fellowship group, Colson approached his lawyers and suggested a plea of guilty to a different criminal charge of which he did consider himself culpable.
After days of negotiation with Jaworski and Gesell, Colson pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice on the basis of having attempted to defame Ellsberg's character in the build-up to the trial in order to influence the jury against him. Journalist Carl Rowan commented in a June 10 column that the guilty plea came "at a time when the judge was making noises about dismissing the charges against him" and speculated that Colson was preparing to reveal highly damaging information against Nixon, an expectation shared by columnist Clark Mollenhoff; Mollenhoff even went so far as to suggest that for Colson not to become a "devastating witness" would cast doubt on the sincerity of his conversion. On June 21, 1974, Colson was given a one- to three-year sentence and fined $5,000. He was subsequently disbarred in the District of Columbia, with the expectation of his also being prohibited from using his licenses from Virginia and Massachusetts.
Colson served seven months in Maxwell Correctional Facility in Alabama, — with brief stints at a facility on the Fort Holabird grounds when needed as a trial witness — entering prison on July 9, 1974 and being released early, on January 31, 1975, by the sentencing judge because of family problems. At the time that Gesell ordered his release, Colson was one of the last of the Watergate defendants still in jail, only Gordon Liddy was still incarcerated; Egil Krogh had served his sentence and been released before Colson entered jail, while John Dean, Jeb Magruder, and Herb Kalmbach had been released earlier in January 1975 by Judge John Sirica. (Although Gesell declined to name the "family problems" prompting the release, Colson wrote in his 1976 memoir that his son Chris, angry over his father's imprisonment and looking to replace his broken car, had bought $150 worth of marijuana in hopes of selling it at a profit, and had been arrested in South Carolina, where he was in college. The state later dropped the charges.)
During his time in prison, Colson had become increasingly aware of what he saw as injustices done to prisoners and shortcomings in their rehabilitation; he also had the opportunity, during a three-day furlough to attend his father's funeral, to pore over his father's papers and discover the two shared an interest in prison reform. He became increasingly convinced that he was being called by God to develop a ministry to prisoners with an emphasis in promoting changes in the justice system.
After his release from prison, Colson founded Prison Fellowship. Colson has worked to promote prisoner rehabilitation and reform of the prison system in the United States. He disdains what he calls the "lock 'em and leave 'em" warehousing approach to criminal justice. He led the effort that released Elizabeth Morgan from prison. He has helped to create faith-based prisons whose populations come from inmates who choose to participate in them. All of Colson's book royalties are donated to Prison Fellowship.
Colson's religious conversion and prison term were the subject of a 1975 personal memoir, Born Again, which was made into a 1978 dramatic film starring Dean Jones, as Colson, Anne Francis, as his wife, Patty, and Harold Hughes, as himself.
Colson also maintains a variety of media channels which discuss contemporary issues from an evangelical Christian worldview. Colson's views are typically consistent with a politically conservative interpretation of evangelical Christianity. In his Christianity Today columns, for example, Colson has opposed same-sex marriage, argued that Darwinism is used to attack Christianity, and claimed that the Enron accounting scandals were a consequence of secularism. He has also argued against Darwinism and in favor of intelligent design, saying Darwinism helped cause forced sterilizations by eugenicists.
Colson has been an outspoken critic of postmodernism, believing that, as a cultural worldview, it is incompatible with the Christian tradition. He has debated prominent post-evangelicals, such as Brian McLaren, on the best response for the evangelical church in dealing with the postmodern cultural shift. Colson has, however, come alongside the controversial "creation care" movement when endorsing Christian-environmentalist author Nancy Sleeth's Go Green, $ave Green: a simple guide to saving time, money, and God's green earth.
Colson is a member of the Family (also known as the Fellowship), described by prominent evangelical Christians as one of the most politically well-connected fundamentalist organizations in the US.
In the early 1980s, Colson was invited to New York by David Frost's variety program on NBC for an open debate with Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the famous atheist who, in 1963, brought the court case (Murray v. Curlett) that eliminated official public school prayers. More recently, Colson has been a strong proponent of the Bible Literacy Project's curriculum The Bible and Its Influence for public high school literature courses.
From 1982 to 1995, Colson received Honorary doctorates from various colleges and universities.
In 1990, the Salvation Army recognized Colson with its highest civic award, the Others Award. Previous recipients of the award include Barbara Bush, Paul Harvey, US Senator Bob Dole and the Meadows Foundation.
On April 4, 1991, Colson was invited to deliver a speech as part of the Distinguished Lecturer series at Harvard Business School. The speech was titled "The Problem of Ethics," where he argued that a society without a foundation of moral absolutes cannot long survive.
In 1993 Colson was awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, the world's largest cash gift (over $1 million), which is given each year to the one person in the world who has done the most to advance the cause of religion. He donated this prize, as he does all speaking fees and royalties, to further the work of Prison Fellowship.
In 1994, Colson was famously quoted in contemporary Christian music artist Steven Curtis Chapman's song Heaven in the Real World as saying:
"Where is the hope? I meet millions of people who feel demoralized by the decay around us. The hope that each of us has is not in who governs us, or what laws we pass, or what great things we do as a nation. Our hope is in the power of God working through the hearts of people. And that's where our hope is in this country. And that's where our hope is in life."
The 1995 book, Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission (ISBN 0-8499-3860-0), which Colson and prominent Roman Catholic Richard John Neuhaus edited, sparked some controversy amongst evangelicals. The same year, actor Kevin Dunn portrayed Colson in the movie Nixon.
In 1999, Colson co-authored "How Now Shall We Live?" with Nancy Pearcey and published by Tyndale House. The book was winner of the 2000 Gold Medallion Book Award.
In 2000, Florida Governor Jeb Bush reinstated the rights taken away by Colson's felony conviction, including the right to vote.
On February 9, 2001, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) presented Colson with the Mark O. Hatfield Leadership Award at the Forum on Christian Higher Education in Orlando, Florida. The award is presented to individuals who have demonstrated uncommon leadership that reflects the values of Christian higher education. The award was established in 1997 in honor of US Senator Mark Hatfield, a long-time supporter of the Council.
On October 3, 2002, Colson was one of the co-signers of the Land letter sent to President Bush. The letter was written by Richard D. Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. It was co-signed by four prominent American evangelical Christian leaders with Colson among them. The letter outlined their theological support for a just war pre-emptive invasion of Iraq.
On June 18, 2003, Colson was invited by President George W. Bush to the White House to present results of a scientific study on the faith-based initiative, InnerChange, at the Carol Vance Unit (originally named the Jester II Unit) prison facility of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in Fort Bend County, Texas. Colson led a small group that includes Dr. Byron Johnson of the University of Pennsylvania, who was the principal researcher of the InnerChange study, a few staff members of Prison Fellowship and three InnerChange graduates to the meeting. In the presentation, Dr. Johnson explained that 171 participants in the InnerChange program were compared to a matched group of 1,754 inmates from the prison's general population. The study found that only 8 percent of InnerChange graduates, as opposed to 20.3 percent of inmates in the matched comparison group, became offenders again in a two-year period. In other words, the recidivism rate was cut by almost two-thirds for those who complete the faith-based program. Those who are dismissed for disciplinary reasons or who drop out voluntarily, or those who are paroled before completion, have a comparable rate of rearrest and incarceration.
On June 1, 2005 Colson appeared in the national news commenting on the revelation that W. Mark Felt was Deep Throat. Colson expressed disapproval in Felt's role in the Watergate scandal, first in the context of Felt being an FBI employee who should have known better than to disclose the results of a government investigation to the press (violating a fundamental tenet of FBI culture), and second in the context of the trust placed in him (which demanded a more active response, such as a face-to-face confrontation with the FBI director or Nixon or, had that failed, public resignation). His criticism of Felt provoked a harsh response from former Washington Post executive editor Benjamin Bradlee, one of only three individuals to know who Deep Throat was prior to the public disclosure, who said he was "baffled" that Colson and Liddy were "lecturing the world about public morality" considering their role in the Watergate scandal, and stated that "as far as I'm concerned they have no standing in the morality debate."
Colson also supported the passage of Proposition 8. He signed his name to a full-page ad in the December 5, 2008 New York Times that objected to violence and intimidation against religious institutions and believers in the wake of the passage of Proposition 8. The ad stated that "violence and intimidation are always wrong, whether the victims are believers, gay people, or anyone else." A dozen other religious and human rights activists from several different faiths also signed the ad, noting that they "differ on important moral and legal questions," including Proposition 8.
In 2008, Colson was presented with the Presidential Citizens Medal by President George W. Bush.
In November 2009, Colson signed an ecumenical statement known as the Manhattan Declaration calling on evangelicals, Catholics and Orthodox not to comply with rules and laws permitting abortion, same-sex marriage and other matters that go against their religious consciences.