WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Charles Colson, a Richard Nixon White House operative during the Watergate scandal who had a reputation for ruthlessness before going to jail and starting a prison ministry, died on Saturday at age 80, the ministry said.
Colson, who compiled Nixon’s infamous “enemies list” before Watergate brought down the president in 1974, died of complications from a brain hemorrhage after being admitted to a hospital in Fairfax, Virginia, on March 31, Prison Fellowship Ministries said in a statement on its website.
He had undergone surgery to remove clotting on his brain, but his condition deteriorated earlier this week.
“It is with a heavy heart that we share the news that Chuck Colson — our friend, founder, and brother in Christ — has passed away,” the ministry’s CEO, Jim Liske, said in the statement. “Though we mourn the loss of a great leader, we rejoice knowing God has welcomed his humble and faithful servant home.”
Colson served as counsel to the president from 1969 to 1973 and a major part of his job was playing hardball politics to assure Nixon’s re-election in 1972.
“I would walk over my own grandmother if necessary” to get Nixon re-elected, Colson once said.
In 1973, Time magazine said Colson “was probably more disliked, as well as feared, than any other White House aide ... If Colson actually performed half the various acts of which he has been accused, he was easily the least principled of all Nixon’s associates.”
It was in that atmosphere that Colson and others at the top of the White House staff engaged in a series of misadventures and illegal acts that resulted in Nixon resigning the presidency in 1974 in the face of impeachment over the Watergate scandal, which grew out of a 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington.
Colson ended up with a sentence of one to three years in prison but it did not come from a Watergate crime. He had pleaded no contest to obstruction of justice in the break-in of the offices of the psychiatrist to Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times.
While under investigation, Colson became an evangelical Christian. After serving seven months at Maxwell Correctional Facility in Alabama, he founded the Prison Fellowship to push prison reform and provide religious opportunities for prisoners.
In 1971, Colson had been the chief author of a memo listing Nixon’s major political critics and opponents, including businessmen, members of Congress, journalists and entertainers. When the “enemies list” became public, those included on it - among them actor Paul Newman - wore the mention like a badge of honor and cited the list as a prime example of Nixon’s paranoia.
The same year, the president’s re-election committee set aside $250,000 to do “intelligence gathering” on Democrats. To lead the program, Colson choose one of his assistants, former CIA agent E. Howard Hunt.
Hunt’s group came to be known as “the plumbers” and they participated in a number of questionable and outright illegal events, including the Ellsberg break-in.
Colson had other capers in mind, including starting a fire at the Brookings Institution think tank and breaking into the apartment of the man who tried to assassinate Alabama Governor George Wallace. Such ideas were never carried out.
Then came the break-in that failed when “plumbers” were caught inside the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate complex.
Colson and six other former White House aides were charged with conspiring to hinder the investigation of the burglary before Colson entered his plea in the Ellsberg case.
Before the plea, Colson read C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” and pledged to become an evangelical Christian. Opponents sneered that his conversion was phony and only designed to win him sympathy.
But for the rest of his life, Colson worked to bring Christian messages and Bible study to prisoners and their families. In 1983, he helped found Justice Fellowship to rehabilitate prisoners and bring about prison reform such as better job training for inmates.
Time magazine named Colson one of the 25 most influential evangelical Christians in America in 2005. At that time, Time said his Prison Fellowship Ministries was a $50 million organization with operations in 110 countries.
‘His famous redemption story and tireless advocacy on behalf of the marginalized and the outcast have called all of us to a deeper reflection on our lives and priorities,“ Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement. ”He lives on as a modern model of redemption and a permanent rebuttal to the cynical claim that there are no second chances in life.’
Born in Boston on October 16, 1931, Colson earned degrees from Brown University and George Washington University law school He worked for some Republican politicians and was in private practice before going to the White House. He also served in the U.S. Marines.
Later in life, he lived in Naples, Florida, and in 2000 Florida Governor Jeb Bush restored his civil rights, including the right to vote, 25 years after he left prison.
Colson had three children with his first wife, Nancy, whom he divorced in 1964, the same year he married Patricia Hughes.
Editing by Stacey Joyce and Peter Cooney