Almost thirty years ago, the Nixon revisionist Joan Hoff pronounced that Watergate was fast becoming a “dim and distant curiosity.” She couldn’t have been more wrong. Few people under the age of 50 are liable to get a reference to a “modified limited hang-out,” but Nixon’s gallery of White House horrors remains the benchmark against which presidential wrongdoing is measured. While anniversaries of lesser scandals like the Lewinsky affairs and even Iran-contra come and go with little attention from the news media, Watergate remembrances persist. One need only scan the obituary headlines in the New York Times:
October 8, 2011: “Kenneth H. Dahlberg, Link in the Watergate Chain, Dies at 94”
March 27, 2011: “Henry S. Ruth, Who Helped Lead Watergate Prosecution, Dies at 80.”
April 9, 2011: “Frank H. Strickler, Watergate Defense Lawyer, Dies at 92.”
“At death,” wrote Michael Schudson in his important 1992 book Watergate in American Memory, “everyone involved in Watergate is publicly marked by its shadow.”
And now, the other day: “Charles W. Colson, Watergate Felon Who Became Evangelical Leader, Dies at 80.”
Unlike Henry Ruth and Frank Strickler, Colson requires no introduction. Known to history as Nixon’s hatchet man, he was the ugliest of the Watergate thugs, the most shamelessly vicious—and also “viciously loyal,” in the words of no less than his own father. One colleague called him an “evil genius,” another called him “a cobra,” and Nixon said that he “would do anything. He’s got the balls of a brass monkey.” (Later, in his memoir, Nixon did not back away from this assessment: Colson’s “instinct for the political jugular and his ability to get things done made him a lightning rod for my own frustrations,” the former president wrote.) Colson himself agreed. He referred to himself as “the chief ass-kicker around the White House” and a “flag-waving, kick-’em-in-the-nuts, anti-press, anti-liberal Nixon fanatic.” In certain Republican circles, he made running over your own grandmother chic.
Colson’s role in the dozens of crimes that came to be known as Watergate cannot be overstated. He was involved in compiling the Enemies List—the roster of famous liberals targeted by Nixon for IRS audits and other forms of extralegal retaliation. He was connected to the unleashing of FBI agents upon CBS newsman Daniel Schorr, for a skeptical report on White House efforts to aid parochial schools—a Colson project. His fingerprints were everywhere: on the planned firebombing of the Brookings Institution; on the smear campaigns against Senator Ted Kennedy (when he was seen as Nixon’s likely 1972 opponent); on the efforts to paint Arthur Bremer, George Wallace’s would-be assassin, as a George McGovern supporter; on the burglary of whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office.
And of course he brought into the White House the former spy E. Howard Hunt, a fellow alumnus of Brown University, then famous as a CIA feeder school, to join the Plumbers’ Unit, the secret White House team designed to plug leaks via legal or illegal means. That brigade’s incompetence would of course result in the botched break-in at the Watergate building forty years ago, eventually bringing to light so many of Colson’s—and Nixon’s—dirty deeds.
Before entering prison, Colson found Jesus. For the rest of his life he made common cause with the religious right. There is no reason to think that Colson’s conversion was insincere or opportunistic, and I for one do not. But it should be noted that his clerical garb afforded him considerable material benefits. Washington influentials who might have been reluctant to forgive him now did so. The storyline of such a nasty man now finding God proved irresistible. They even helped him capitalize on his Watergate notoriety, giving him op-ed space to propound his views. Excepting Henry Kissinger, no Watergate villain ever enjoyed more column inches in the Washington Post.
But make no mistake, Colson remained a force for ill in public life. One tends to forget, amid the misty-eyed talk of his conversion, that the religious are no more moral or decent than the irreligious; belief in God does not track with ethical or legal behavior. In his “reformed” life, Colson was a steadfast ally of efforts to diminish the separation between church and state. Much of his energy was expended on that same nasty project he initiated under Nixon: trying to funnel public funds to religious organizations, notwithstanding the First Amendment.
As an adviser to George W. Bush, he prominently encouraged the president’s euphemistically named “faith-based” initiative and efforts like it. Sometimes these schemes were judged by courts to have run afoul of the Constitution. In 2006, an Iowa program linked to Colson’s Prison Fellowship organization was deemed illegal because it spent tax dollars on a program that afforded privileges to inmates who converted to evangelicalism. This, a federal judge ruled, was tantamount to establishing a state religion. Colson objected and appealed, but a higher court sustained the ruling.
In 2005, in a review of a hilariously bad Colson biography by Jonathan Aitken—a right-wing British politician, shamelessly revisionist Nixon biographer, and convicted felon who also subsequently found Jesus and claimed redemption—I noted that “while Colson’s motives might be less cynical now than they were under Nixon, the project of eroding the church-state wall is essentially the same. And while Colson’s current schemes surely don’t merit him more jail time, they hardly suggest a meaningfully changed man.”
I suggested further that, after Watergate, Colson—and Nixon, for that matter—never figured out that the true path to redemption would have been to retreat entirely from the public realm. A few of the Watergate rogues, such as Egil “Bud” Krogh and David Young, did just that. But Colson could not allow himself to forsake the limelight—the books, the TV shows, the advising of presidents, the fame, the money, the influence. Like Nixon, he was really seeking not a private redemption, but a public comeback.
For this, Colson’s supposedly meek-hearted gentle minions—spurred by a right-wing blog—hounded and harassed me, sending hate mail to my personal email account. I’ll surely get more for this. “Viciously loyal,” Colson’s father said. The thuggery lives on.
David Greenberg, a contributing editor to The New Republic, teaches history at Rutgers University and is at work on a history of presidents and spin.