Charles Colson had always been a shadowy figure, a man feared, disliked and little known even by fellow powermongers in the White House. As the Watergate case broke open, he managed to remain in the background. Unlike other former Administration officials, he was never compelled to testify at the televised Ervin hearings. His conversations with President Nixon were conspicuously absent from the transcripts made public by the White House.
Colson's sudden decision to plead guilty to a felony charge instantly raised the question, what was he up to now? Columnists Evans and Novak speculated that he was retaliating for the unkind things said about him in the transcripts. Nixon had called him a "name-dropper" who "talks too much." The President also said that he "may well have been the triggerman" of the Watergate breakin. H.R. Haldeman characterized him as "an operator in expediency." Others last week felt just the oppositethat Colson's move was only the most devious of his many political ruses, this one designed ultimately to exonerate the President.
Contrite Tone. One thing was certain: the guilty plea was Colson's own idea. Despite some possibility that the original case against him would be dismissed, Colson late last month had his attorney, David Shapiro, call Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski to make a deal. Shapiro was reluctant but went ahead. On Friday, May 31, Jaworski wrote a letter to Shapiro outlining the sort of plea he would accept. It would, he insisted, have to be a felony, and there would have to be an understanding that Colson would later testify in all areas of the Watergate case. Late into Sunday night, Colson discussed his decision with his prayer group. It happened that Shapiro and the special prosecutor were due in court Monday morning for arguments regarding the June 17 Ellsberg break-in trial. Colson arrived with his lawyer, and in a procedure lasting only ten minutes, he pleaded guilty to an offense of his own choosingone that had not even been placed against him by the grand jury. A few minutes later, he emerged from the courtroom to recite a statement to the press, refusing to answer any questions. The remarks were conciliatory and apologetic for his attempt to obstruct justice in the Ellsberg case.
Colson's contrite tone seemed well suited to the new life he has proclaimed for himselfthat of devotion to Jesus. A nominal Episcopalian who goes to Mass with his second wife Patty, a Catholic, Colson embarked on his spiritual conversion more than a year ago. As he put it in a recent television interview: "I had an emptiness that was based upon wanting to find something else that I could achieve in my life so that I could point to my friends and my family and say, 'Look how good Chuck Colson is.' " Colson was strongly influenced by Thomas Phillips, president of the Raytheon Company and an old friend who had himself undergone a religious conversion experience. Phillips put Colson in touch with Iowa Democrat Harold Hughes, who is leaving the Senate to become a lay religious worker. Hughes accepted Colson's spiritual fervor as a sincere attempt to begin a new life.