The Watergate Dirty Trickster Who Found God: Charles Colson (1931–2012)

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Bob Daugherty / AP

In this June 21, 1974 , file photo former Nixon White House aide Charles W. Colson arrives at U.S. District Court in Washington to be sentenced for obstructing justice.

Charles (Chuck) Colson, who died on Saturday after a brain hemorrhage, spent close to half his life atoning for his sins. But even he knew that there would be many Americans who would never accept his penitence as genuine. For those sins were great. As the hatchet man and master of dirty tricks during the first term of Richard Nixon, Colson played a key role in the vast abuse-of-power scandal that would result in the resignation of the President in disgrace in August 1974. Watergate — both the break-in and the cover-up — would scar American democracy for years. Colson — who was White House Special Counsel — was one of the most hated of the Nixon loyalists, at one point infamously joking that he would run over his own grandmother for the president. At the height of Watergate, he may have found Jesus to forgive him by way of his very public conversion to evangelical Christianity; but mere mortals would always have their doubts. "There is something pompous and self-righteous even in saying I have been converted," Colson admitted shortly after his release from seven months of imprisonment in 1976 but, he argued, "I do know that in my heart I have accepted certain truths."

His enemies called him "Chuckles." But there was nothing funny about what he did for the president. A lawyer for Nixon's 1968 election campaign, Colson joined the new Republican administration and assembled what would become known as Nixon's "Enemies List" — people the president did not like and who would apparently be paid special attention by the Internal Revenue Service. He also helped put together the White House Special Operations Unit to plug up the leaks that plagued the Nixon administration (hence the "plumbers"). In 1971, the plumbers would burglarize the psychiatric files of Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press, adding to the public backlash against the war in Vietnam, part of an attempt to find material to discredit the whistleblower.

Technically, Colson served time for the Ellsberg break-in — not Watergate. But Colson and key plumbers were also associated with the Committee to Re-Elect the President (lampooned as CREEP), which was implicated in the June 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington D.C. Colson, who left the White House in 1973 to return to his private law practice, would be indicted in 1974 for conspiring to cover-up the Watergate burglary but would cop to the Ellsberg charges. The speculation at the time was that he did it to protect the president.

He insisted, however, that he had pleaded guilty because of conscience. Raised as a nominal Episcopalian, he had interests in Roman Catholicism as well as Christian Science. But it was a copy of C.S. Lewis' seminal book Mere Christianity that changed his life. He had received it from a friend amid his legal troubles — and Lewis' discussion of sin of pride, that is, intellectual hubris, struck him. He identified with Lewis, an Oxford don, and his confession of haughtily knowing-it-all. That realization of his blindness to his own imperfection would lead, he wrote in his book Born Again to a new life in Christ. Discussing Watergate after his release from prison, Colson reflected on the pride that brought about his fall, saying that the Nixon administration's "main error was allowing our belief in our own power to lead us to arrogance." The decision to go to jail was a humbling and necessary act of penitence for Colson — it was also terrifying. "The Watergate period is important to me. My prison experience is important to me. I don't recommend it."

The personal costs of prison were great — not just for Colson but for his family. His father died of a heart attack as he prepared to visit him in prison. His mother's health declined immediately after that. On the eve of Colson's release, one of his son would be charged with attempting to sell marijuana. As PEOPLE magazine reported in 1975, when the police asked Christian Colson, then 19, why he got into such a mess, he said, "I don't know. Like father, like son, I suppose."

And yet, Colson would turn incarceration into resurrection. Seeing the conditions of his fellow prisoners, he would be inspired to start Prison Fellowship shortly after he regained his freedom to evangelize the inmates of America's penitentiary system. He had himself been touched by offers of Christian charity while behind bars — from people who were once his enemies. Senator Harold Hughes, a Democrat from Iowa, among other members of Colson's prayer group, offered to serve out the rest of his time in prison for him. Indeed, many of his political foes, apart from Hughes, found his conversion sincere — including his former White House colleague turned nemesis John Dean III.

As the years went by, Colson would use his celebrity as one of America's most famous redeemed sinners to crusade for prison reform — as well as buttress the country's burgeoning evangelical movement, which was finding its political legs in the 1980s. Among evangelicals and conservative Christian groups, he became a fount of carefully worded argument, without the bombast and grandstanding of politically-ambitious preachers, even as he defended the same positions on evolution and abortion, same-sex marriage and the use of the Bible in public schools. In 2009, he started the Chuck Colson center, an online research site that he calls "the Lexis-Nexis of resources on the Christian worldview." Colson was key to forming an amalgam of conservative Christian principles that would come together as an ecumenical political front of great potency.

Colson had begun to re-vision conservative Christian activism by the end of the first decade of the 21st century. He told TIME: "I don't think the job of the church is to make people happy. I think it's to make them holy ... The problem is getting people to be serious about what they profess to believe." A civil redemption took place in 2000 when he had his right to vote restored by then-Governor Jeb Bush of Florida, himself a famous convert to another branch of Christianity, Roman Catholicism.

To Colson's fellow believers, his fall and rise are part of a restorative parable, wonderfully contemporary. Few of them would deny that Watergate was a time of great darkness, least of all Colson himself (though he would always say he was not guilty of the Watergate-specific charges against him). But he became proof for many Christians that there is redemption in this lifetime even for a man who has sinned greatly and been involved in great political evil. He is proof that Jesus still saves, that the dark night of the soul can lead to a new dawn. As Colson wrote in Born Again of finding Christ amid the ruins of the Nixon administration, "I felt truly free, even as the fortunes of my life seemed at their lowest ebb."