The ‘new’ Charles Colson

After Richard Nixon lost the 1960 presidential election to John F. Kennedy and the California governor’s race two years later (when he uttered the immortal line to the media, “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore”) the former vice president knew he must reinvent himself to run for president again in 1968.

Thus was born “the new Nixon,” an attempt to transform himself from “the old Nixon” the public didn’t like, into a warmer, softer, more approachable person. As it turned out, the “new Nixon” was simply the “old Nixon” with a new coat of political paint.

Not so with Charles W. Colson, who died last Saturday at age 80. Colson, was an ex-Marine and Nixon’s “hatchet man” who enjoyed going to any lengths to ensure his boss got his way, including re-election in 1972, as the Watergate scandal was just breaking.

No one doubted Colson’s political shrewdness. Here’s an example. He once told me that Nixon wanted a book hyped because it exposed what he considered bias at CBS News. Colson said he obtained the supposedly secret list of bookstores The New York Times used to determine its “best sellers” and then sent people into those stores to buy the book, which made the New York Times list for one week before disappearing. But, said Colson, Nixon was satisfied.

That and more occurred before the “new” Charles Colson was born … again. Unlike Nixon who sought to transform himself by his own political strength and for an earthly agenda, Colson was transformed by a higher power and not by his own efforts. First, though, he had to descend to the depths. He told James Rosen of Fox News that after being a Marine captain and a White House special counsel, the “worst blow of his life” was standing in the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., and hearing a court officer speak the words, “The United States vs. Charles W. Colson.”

Colson plead guilty in 1974 to an obstruction of justice charge relating to attempts to discredit Daniel Ellsberg, a former Marine and military analyst, who three years earlier had released “The Pentagon Papers,” a top-secret account of U.S. military activities during the Vietnam War, to The New York Times. Colson served seven months in federal prison, but before he went to jail, he said he accepted Christ as payment for his sins.

The world was stunned. Some laughed in derision, thinking Colson was trying to obtain a “stay out of jail” card. Others said none of the Nixon officials should be forgiven for their “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

When Colson got out of prison he founded Prison Fellowship, a Christian organization that recruits volunteers to “visit those in prison” in response to the command of Jesus, conduct Bible studies behind prison walls and help ex-convicts find jobs after their release so they won’t return to crime and jail.

It has worked. According to Prison Fellowship (, prisoners who take part in their faith-based programs have a much lower recidivism rate than other prisoners.

In 1983, Colson established Justice Fellowship, a Christian-based criminal justice reform group. Through Justice Fellowship, Colson became a leading prison reformer, taking positions one doesn’t usually associate with Republicans. He criticized the death penalty, mostly for being unequally applied (though he believed in it for rare cases). He opposed the incarceration of nonviolent, non-dangerous offenders, believing restitution was a more redemptive approach for both perpetrator and victim.

I once asked him if he would ever seek a pardon. He replied, “I have the only pardon I need,” referring to God. In 2000, he accepted a restoration of his civil rights from then-Governor Jeb Bush of Florida, but was never pardoned by a president. President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Citizens Medal in 2008 for his work in prisons.

In one of his many books, “Who Speaks for God?” Colson warned against attaching a heavenly kingdom to the political agendas of the age. He also urged Christians to think and act more like Jesus.

In 1973, when news of Colson’s conversion became public, The Boston Globe editorialized, “If Mr. Colson can repent of his sins, there just has to be hope for everyone.” To which the “new” Charles Colson would undoubtedly shout, “Amen!”

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