Charles Wendell Colson, like Robert McNamara, strove mightily to live down his past and never quite succeeded.
Colson met Richard Nixon in 1956 and became, in his own words, "a Nixon fanatic":
The two men “understood each other,” Mr. Colson wrote in “Born Again,” his memoir. They were “prideful men seeking that most elusive goal of all — acceptance and the respect of those who had spurned us.”
When he became President in 1969, Nixon quickly found a use for the young lawyer, who turns out to have been an early adopter of what is now known, in sports, as trash talk:
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 N. 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.”
Colson's tactics laid the groundwork for those of Republican tacticians to come, including the late Lee Atwater and Bush family consigliere Karl Rove:
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.”
Mr. Colson hired E. Howard Hunt, a veteran covert operator for the Central Intelligence Agency, to spy on the president’s opponents. Their plots became part of the cascade of high crimes and misdemeanors known as the Watergate affair.
Their efforts 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.”
“The attitude was, ‘Well, we showed them, we got even with our enemies and we beat them,’ instead of ‘We’ve been given a wonderful mandate to rule over the next four years,’ ” he said. “We were reduced to our petty worst on the night of what should have been our greatest triumph.”
Found guilty of obstructing justice in the investigation of the break-in to the psychiatrist of Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, Colson spent all of seven months in prison and emerged a new man, filled with Godliness. He devoted himself to founding and expanding a successful prison ministry, and was renowned for spending holidays in prison ministering to men who were going to be there way longer than Colson ever risked.
At the same time, Colson was always on the lookout for opportunities to deal himself back into The Show. Always claiming he avoided the political role sought by evangelists like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, he cultivated an alliance between Protestant evangelicals and conservative Catholics on the theory that they enemy of his enemy was his friend. It proved wildly successful as a political venture: rather than overtly re-enter politics, the fusion of the evangelical right and the GOP allowed him to sit back and let politics come to him.
Cataloguing enemies was a COlson specialty: in the White House, he originated the famous "enemies list"- persons who displeased the President or his aides. COlson wanted them treated to tasty morsels of vengeance like federal tax audits. CBS reporter Daniel Schorr, reporting on the release of the list during the Watergate scandal, discovering reading the names on air that he was himself on it.
His relationship with the Bush family helped: in 2000 Florida Governor Jeb Bush restored his civil rights; a year later he was cheerleading for President George W. Bush's faith-based initiatives and soon was welcome in the White House again.
There is little evidence COlson apologized to many of those he wronged. One account has it that he made up with former White House counsel John Dean when the two were in prison but dropped Dean later when he wouldn't convert to evangelicalism.
Nor was much of his face time on television devoted to prison reform. He spent his last decade railing on social issues, and found gays a useful target for his urge to compile lists of the evil. His last great effort was the 2009 Manhattan Declaration, a scornful, condescending screed that calls on Christians- narrowly defined- to defy laws they disapprove of and demands the return of younger people who were perceived as falling away:
The manifesto, to be released on Friday at the National Press Club in Washington, is an effort to rejuvenate the political alliance of conservative Catholics and evangelicals that dominated the religious debate during the administration of President George W. Bush. The signers include nine Roman Catholic archbishops and the primate of the Orthodox Church in America.
They want to signal to the Obama administration and to Congress that they are still a formidable force that will not compromise on abortion, stem-cell research or gay marriage. They hope to influence current debates over health care reform, the same-sex marriage bill in Washington, D.C., and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.
They say they also want to speak to younger Christians who have become engaged in issues like climate change and global poverty, and who are more accepting of homosexuality than their elders. They say they want to remind them that abortion, homosexuality and religious freedom are still paramount issues.
“We argue that there is a hierarchy of issues,” said Charles Colson, a prominent evangelical who founded Prison Fellowship after serving time in prison for his role in the Watergate scandal. “A lot of the younger evangelicals say they’re all alike. We’re hoping to educate them that these are the three most important issues.”Colson is survived by his second wife and family, and many friends and admirers. President Richard Nixon died in 1994.