This is the grave of a lovely man named Charles Colson.
Born in Boston in 1931, Colson grew up in a rising family, part of the liberal Republican elite of the city. You’d have thought some of this would have rubbed off on him, but he turned into the worst possible kind of Republican. In any case, his father was trying to become a lawyer, then succeeded, and eventually got a job with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which gave the family stability it didn’t have early in Colson’s life. His parents were big into charities and did a lot of work for the poor during the Depression. No, they didn’t like FDR, but this was hardly the kind of Republican their son would become. In fact, his parents really worked to teach their children about ethics. Didn’t stick! And Colson was elite all the way in his education, going to the right schools, then to Brown where he majored in history (sigh), and then went to law school at George Washington.
Upon graduation from college in 1953, Colson joined the military for two years and became a captain in the Marines. Well connected, he immediately got a job as assistant to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy upon graduation, though he only stayed in the job for a year. Then he got a job working with Leverett Saltonstall, the extremely elite Massachusetts Brahmin and managed his successful 1960 Senate campaign. Saltonstall was always pretty moderate and I’m not sure he knew just how far-right Colson had already become. After that, he decided to use his law degree and went into one of the top east coast law firms, with offices in Boston and Washington.
In 1969, Colson decided to go and work for Richard Nixon. By this time, Colson was pretty committed to the worst possible politics. He had already specialized in dirty tricks back in Massachusetts. He learned everything he could about how to fix things the right way. He and Nixon saw the world the same way. You know what? You do not want to see the world as Richard Nixon did. He became Nixon’s special counsel. As such, he quickly became Nixon’s top hatchet man, which is really saying something. First, he was deeply committed to opening the White House to business interests. So they had almost unprecedented access to the president.
Colson became Nixon’s extremist. And that was saying something given the other scumbags the president hired. Even Bob Haldeman later called Colson “Nixon’s hit man.” Colson was one of those guys who got special missions. That could be something as simple as lobbying Congress to pass a weapons programs. Or it could be something as awful as using illegal means to undermine Democrats. Colson was really into that stuff. Thanks to Nixon recording everything, we know a lot about Colson was really thinking and doing. So who put together Nixon’s Enemies List? It was Colson. Who suggested firebombing the Brookings Institution so that Republicans could still potentially incriminating documents while the firefighters did their work? It was Colson. After John Lindsay lowered flags in New York to half-mast when the National Guard slaughtered students at Kent State, who brought labor leaders from the right-wing part of the labor movement and convinced them to launch street attacks on the hippies? It was Colson and this became known as the Hard Hat Riot in New York. After the Hard Hat Riot, Colson organized the celebration at the White House celebrating New York Building and Construction Trades president Peter Brennan. This then led Brennan to get the job of Secretary of Labor.
When George Wallace got shot in 1972, Colson had a great idea. See Nixon wanted to know his politics. Colson didn’t care what they were. For him, an assassination attempt was an opportunity to make political capital. He told Nixon, “Well, he’s going to be a left-winger by the time we get through.” Colson then proposed that the administration use its agents to plant some left-wing literature in the guy’s apartment. Nixon totally approved, although it didn’t happen in the end.
Nixon ordered Colson to go after John Kerry after the latter testified before Congress about the war. Nixon worried that Kerry would become the next Ralph Nader (this is ironic given 2004!) and wanted Kerry destroyed in some way. Then there was the Committee to Re-Elect the President. Colson was named the head of the Office of Communications and did his work from there. He and John Ehrlichmann knew the perfect guy for the job of undermining the Democrats through illegal means–Howard Hunt. Colson told him to do his magic, which led Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy to burglarize the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist to leak material about the guy who had leaked the Pentagon Papers. Colson also personally leaked material from Ellsberg’s FBI file to the press, which was completely illegal. Then….there was the Watergate coverup…..But yeah, Nixon really loved Colson. That was just his kind of guy, for all the wrong reasons for anyone with even a whiff of moral behavior.
Colson resigned from the administration early in Nixon’s second term and went back to his private practice, though Nixon would still call on him for various things. But the cops would come callin’. When it all fell apart for Nixon in 1974, his thugs would have to face the consequences too. That included Colson. Now, Colson actually believed he had committed no crimes in the Watergate coverup. His lawyers were like, dude, take the 5th. There were rumors that Colson was going to dish on Nixon. But finally, Colson agreed to plead guilty to obstruction of justice by leaking information on Ellsberg before the trial. He was sentenced to one to three years, which means he served seven months in an Alabama federal penitentiary.
Now, you might have thought this was all we were going to hear from this awful human being and he would disappear and live the rest of his life without us having to hear from again. But no, no way. See, in prison Colson converted to evangelical Christianity and this was his ticket back to fame and respectability. I have no idea to the extent Colson actually believed in any of this and the extent to which it was a cynical move to save his reputation. Both probably. He became part of major Washington prayer groups and decided to tell his story in his 1975 memoir Born Again, published shortly after he left prison. Of course, the idiots ate this up. In fact, it got made into a movie in 1978, with Dean Jones as Colson and Dana Andrews showing up because he needed work. The film made Colson out to be this naive kid who wanted to do the right thing but was corrupted by that evil Washington culture until he found Jesus. What a load of shit.
Colson decided the rest of his life would be spent spreading the word of Christ to prisoners. I guess to his credit, having to serve a little time in the can made him realize that maybe prison wasn’t so great for people. Who knew. So this evangelicalism was connected to prison reform, even if of the most mild manner. In 1975, he founded the Prison Fellowship to convince prisons to allow faith-based programming that would help prisoners. In 1979, he expanded that globally by creating the Prison Fellowship International. Now let’s be clear here, Colson was also making a lot of money on this scam. You can believe in your own scam and it is still a scam and that’s what we are dealing with here.
Now, none of this meant that Colson had to change his terrible values. In fact, he just became a monster on social issues as opposed to using his evil by ripping up the Constitution for Nixon. He became a leading voice opposing same-sex marriage. He said that the theory of evolution was a plot against Christianity. He was one of these right-wingers who thought postmodernism was a great evil, which is darkly hilarious now since both the Bush and then the Trump administration just created their own “truths” out of thin air to support whatever they wanted to do. He was deeply involved in uniting evangelicals and Catholics to support far-right politics. He gave his support for the idea that invading Iraq was a “just war” that did the work of God. Colson became a conservative star once again. Naturally, he was living in Florida by this time. He convinced Jeb Bush to restore his voting rights
All of this meant that convicted criminal and general turd of a human being Chuck Colson received the Presidential Citizens Medal from George W. Bush in 2008. Other than the Presidential Medal of Freedom, this is the highest award that a citizen can receive from the president. So this was the ultimate return to respectability for Colson. In conclusion, Donald Trump is far and away not the core of the problem with the Republican Party, although I assume that Colson would have LOVED Donald Trump.
Colson died in 2012 of a brain hemorrhage. He was 80 years old. The world did not mourn.
Chuck Colson is buried in Quantico National Cemetery, Quantico, Virginia.
If you want this series to visit other horrible Nixon advisors, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. G. Gordon Liddy is in Poughkeepsie, New York and Howard Hunt is in Hamburg, New York. I would really, really, really love to visit those scumbags. You know you want me to. Make it happen. Previous posts in this series are archived here.