Colson, Nixon's 'hatchet man,' dead at 80

By United Press International  |  April 21, 2012 at 5:48 PM
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Former Nixon aide Chuck Colson, who died Saturday at age 80, found religion after the Watergate scandal.

Colson died at a hospital in Northern Virginia, three weeks after brain surgery.

Colson, who was once described by H.R. Haldeman as "Nixon's hit man" and "an iron-man bully," became a "born again" Christian shortly before he confessed to a charge of obstruction of justice in the 1970s Watergate scandal that brought down the Nixon administration. He served time in prison, then became an advocate for religious fellowship and conversion within the prison system.

Colson was a special assistant to President Richard Nixon for two years in 1969 to 1971 and led the White House "plumbers," a special inside investigation task force that was to stop leaks to the press, before he was implicated in the Watergate scandal.

Colson stressed a "conversion to Christ" following his conviction of wrongdoing and a desire to "serve the Lord," and avoided a possible 15-year prison sentence by agreeing to plead guilty and to be a cooperative witness in other Watergate trials.

Given a one to three year sentence in a minimum security prison, he was instead released in February 1975 after serving seven months.

Following his release, Colson opened his Prison Fellowship office in Washington D.C. and returned to college to study for his role as a lay minister. He became a lay minister in 1986 and over a 20 year period, wrote several books and articles describing his role in the Watergate affair and his return to a Christian faith. He was a recipient of several prestigious religious awards for his work in prison fellowship.

Colson was born and raised in a comfortable home in Boston on Oct. 16, 1931. He refused a full-tuition scholarship to Harvard University because he considered the school to be too radical and because an admissions officer told him no one had ever done such a thing before.

Colson graduated from Brown University in 1953 and served in the Marines in Korea from 1953 to 1956. After his discharge he attended Georgetown Law School and graduated with a law degree in 1959.

The following year he became campaign manager for Sen. Leverett Saltonstall, R-Mass., and later served as his administrative assistant.

From 1961 to 1969 he enjoyed a prominent law practice in Washington, and continued to participate with the Republican Party, working for Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Nixon in 1968.

Colson joined the Nixon campaign team to help Nixon think through his position on various issues.

In 1969, Colson was brought to the White House as a political strategist under Haldeman, the White House chief of staff.

Colson described himself as an anti-liberal Nixon fanatic who once told astonished reporters, "I would walk over my grandmother if necessary to insure the re-election of Richard Nixon."

In May 1970, under the direction of Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, John Dean and Colson, the Nixon Administration began a deceptive series of letter-writing campaigns designed to convince the public there was a broad base of support for the president's policies governing the Vietnam War.

Colson's office used Republican National Committee lists of editors, governors, congressmen and media representatives to send letters and telegrams, supposedly from private citizens' groups, protesting their positions on Nixon policies.

The White House special investigations unit, or the plumbers, was led by Ehrlichman and Colson to identify people suspected of leaking information to the press and to harass, intimidate and embarrass them publicly.

Colson was also involved in other illegal activities which included: Instructing E. Howard Hunt to forge a cable implicating the Kennedy Administration to the 1964 assassination of President Diem of South Vietnam and then leaking the information to the press.

In the summer of 1971 Colson suggested to John Caulfield, a member of Dean's staff, that he arrange for the firebombing of the liberal Brookings Institution in Washington.

He supported and gave encouragement for a plan to electronically survey the office of Lawrence O'Brien, chairman of the National Democratic Committee.

After the Watergate break-in, he supervised the destruction of the contents of Hunt's White House safe, which included a psychological study of Daniel Ellsberg and the forged Diem cable.

Colson promised Hunt clemency for his continued silence and urged the White House to continue its financial support of the break-in defendants.

When the press began to link the Watergate break-in to the White House, Colson submitted his resignation and returned to his law practice.

In spite of his 11th-hour announcement that he had become a "born again" Christian, Colson was among seven top Nixon officials to be indicted by the Watergate grand jury in March 1974.

In 1978 he criticized Haldeman's book "The Ends of Power," which said Nixon was the instigator of the break-in and called Colson "Nixon's hit man."

In a television interview, Colson said the charges were false.

Colson once invited Eldridge Cleaver, a former leader of the Black Panthers, and a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan from Mississippi to his home in Washington, Cleaver said.

"We were all Christians and found we were able to put aside our bigotries and love one another," Cleaver said in an interview. "We were so overcome at the thought that a former Black Panther and a member of the KKK could overcome their hatred that we knelt down and offered a prayer of thanks."

The former prisoner wrote more than 30 books on religion and faith, and consistently advocated on behalf of conservative policies. President George W. Bush gave Colson the Presidential Citizens Medal in 2008.

Colson married Nancy Billings in 1953 and they had three children, Wendell Ball II, Christian, and Emily Ann. He married Patricia Ann Hughes in 1964.

Colson is survived by his wife Patricia, his three children and five grandchildren.

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