Charles Colson: Nixon's right-hand man who served time for the Watergate scandal

He was delighted when a leaked memo said he would ‘walk over his grandmother’ to get Nixon back in

The problem with Charles Colson was, which Charles Colson? The second version, the prison reformer and born-again evangelical Christian leader? Or Colson the White House aide who positively relished his role as President Nixon's tough guy, and was convicted and jailed for crimes arising from that compendium of political wrongdoing known as the Watergate scandal?

Religion certainly never featured greatly in his childhood. The son of a Boston lawyer, he caught the political bug early, working as a 17-year-old volunteer on the 1948 re-election effort of Robert Bradford, Massachusett's Republican governor. Bradford lost but Colson, as he later wrote, learnt "all the tricks" of the underhand campaign – from planting fake news stories to spying on the opposition and getting dead people, so-called 'voting tombstones,' on the ballot.

His big break came in 1956, when he went to Washington as a staffer for the state's Republican Senator Leverett Saltonstall. There Colson met Richard Nixon, then Eisenhower's vice-president, and the two instantly clicked. Colson was devastated when Nixon lost to John F Kennedy in 1960. Eight years later however, Nixon's luck turned. After working on the campaign, Colson moved to the White House, with the title of special counsel to the President.

The affinity between the two was extraordinary and lifelong, to the point that some believed Nixon regarded Colson as the son he never had. What is certain is that each played to the other's base instincts – Colson to his boss's vindictiveness and paranoia, the President to his aide's ruthless devotion to the cause. Even Bob Haldeman, Nixon's redoubtable chief of staff, resented Colson, accusing him of "always doing things behind my back."

Perhaps it was as well. Colson's brief, as the in-house master of dirty tricks, was not for the faint-hearted. He was enabler and enforcer, the man who got things done. He was delighted when the press obtained an internal White House memo of 1972, in which he declared he would "walk over his grandmother" to make sure Nixon was re-elected. Colson compiled Nixon's famous "enemies list" of political and media foes. And fatefully, he hired the former CIA officer E Howard Hunt to head a new White House special operations unit, aka "the plumbers", to stop leaks from the administration.

It was, of course, the break-in at Democratic party headquarters in Washington on the night of 17 June 1972 that led to the scandal that forced the president to resign. Colson himself, however, was in fact brought down not by Watergate itself, but by the plumbers' operation against Daniel Ellsberg the previous year.

Ellsberg, a military analyst, had been quickly identified as the probable leaker of the Pentagon Papers, a classified history of the Vietnam war whose publication in June 1971 by The New York Times outraged the President. Nixon ordered that Ellsberg be discredited. "Get Colson in," he instructed Haldeman, "he's the best, it's the Colson type of man you need."

The Ellsberg case was the plumbers' debut, but ended in disaster when it emerged in early 1973 that Hunt's team had illegally broken into the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist. By then the noose of Watergate proper was closing around Nixon's inner circle. Colson was indicted, but ultimately agreed to plead guilty to obstruction of justice in the Ellsberg affair. Sentenced to one to three years in jail, he served seven months at a minimum security federal prison in Alabama before being released in January 1975.

Well before that, however, Colson had experienced his epiphany. The story goes it came about when he read Mere Christianity by CS Lewis, a copy of which was lent him by a friend as he awaited indictment. Spiritual conversion did not stop Colson taking the fifth during the Watergate trials to avoid testifying against himself, but thereafter he was a man transformed.

Inevitably, he was mocked by the press, who suspected that the embrace of Christianity was a ploy to reduce his sentence. "If Mr Colson can repent of his sins, there just has to be hope for everyone,'' the Boston Globe tartly editorialised. Repent, however, he did.

A year after his release he founded Prison Fellowship Ministries, giving Christian support to inmates and their families, and in 1983 set up the Justice Fellowship group to promote criminal justice reform. Colson's time behind bars helped turn him into a public opponent of the death penalty, and a supporter of alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders. "I deserved it," he later said of his prison sentence; it had been "a great blessing".

Over the last 35 years of his life,Colson wrote or co-authored dozens of books that sold millions of copies,starting with Born Again: What Really Happened to the White House Hatchet Man, published in 1976 and turned into a movie. The royalties went to his prison ministry, as did the $1mTempleton prize, awarded annually to the person who has done most to advance the cause of religion, which Colson won in 1993.

Long before the end his rehabilitation, in religious and Republican circles at least, was complete. In 1998 he met Pope John Paul II. Two years later, his civil rights were restored by Governor Jeb Bush of Florida, where Colson was a resident at the time, and in 2008 George W Bush awarded him the Presidential Citizens' Medal, the country's second highest civilian honour. By then he was an important figure in the influential evangelical wing of the Republican party, pushing for faith-based government.

Democrats and others will, however, most remember him for his role in Watergate, and Colson would not begrudge them. "God used that experience to raise up a ministry that is reaching hundreds of thousands of people,'' he once said. "So I'm probably one of the few guys around that's saying, 'I'm glad for Watergate.'"

Charles Wendell Colson, US government official: born Boston, Massachusetts 16 October 1931; Special Counsel to President Nixon 1969-73; Founder, Prison Fellowship Ministries 1976; married 1953 Nancy Billings (marriage dissolved; two daughters, one son), 1964 Patricia Hughes; died Fairfax, Virginia 21 April 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Sport
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
football
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
News
i100
Travel
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Arts and Entertainment
Jennifer Saunders stars as Miss Windsor, Dennis's hysterical French teacher
filmJennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress
Life and Style
tech
Sport
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Voices
Jimmy Mubenga died after being restrained on an aircraft by G4S escorts
voicesJonathan Cox: Tragedy of Jimmy Mubenga highlights lack of dignity shown to migrants
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum