Naples resident Charles Colson from Watergate scandal dies at 80

Charles Colson speaks to the Covenant Church of Naples congregation in March 2012, introducing his daughter Emily Colson.  Lance Shearer/Special to the Daily News

Photo by LANCE SHEARER

Charles Colson speaks to the Covenant Church of Naples congregation in March 2012, introducing his daughter Emily Colson. Lance Shearer/Special to the Daily News

Emily Colson spoke at Covenant Church of Naples about the book she wrote with her father, evangelist Charles Colson, about her experiences raising her autistic son, Max. Lance Shearer/Special to the Daily News

Photo by LANCE SHEARER

Emily Colson spoke at Covenant Church of Naples about the book she wrote with her father, evangelist Charles Colson, about her experiences raising her autistic son, Max. Lance Shearer/Special to the Daily News

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. According to newly released Nixon-era records, Nixon complained in an August 1972 memo to Colson, that New York business and financial writers were in the bag for Democratic opponent McGovern 'and are trying to do us in.' (AP Photo/Bob Daugherty)

Photo by Bob Daugherty

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. According to newly released Nixon-era records, Nixon complained in an August 1972 memo to Colson, that New York business and financial writers were in the bag for Democratic opponent McGovern "and are trying to do us in." (AP Photo/Bob Daugherty)

— Charles Colson, who served seven months in prison related to the Watergate cover-up and who founded a prison ministry and retired to Naples, died Saturday.

He was 80.

The Washington Post reported that he maintained a residence in the Washington area also and that he died in Inova Fairfax Hospital in Virginia, not in Collier County.

Colson’s death was confirmed by Jim Liske, the chief executive of the Lansdowne, Va.-based Prison Fellowship Ministries that Colson founded. Liske said the preliminary cause of death is complications from brain surgery Colson had at the end of March.

The Post and a national Christian newsletter reported Saturday that Colson had a brain hemorrhage several weeks ago and died from complications. Colson made an appearance before the Covenant Church of Naples congregation in March, introducing his daughter at an event about autism.

In 1972, Colson helped organize the illegal wiretapping of Democratic headquarters, becoming embroiled in the Watergate scandal, which eventually destroyed Richard Nixon’s presidency. Colson served seven months in an Alabama prison after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice charges.

Colson became a born-again Christian and in 1976 founded Prison Fellowship Ministries, a volunteer-based organization that brings Bible study and a Christian message to prison inmates and their families.

Colson’s Pelican Marsh neighbor for the last 11 years, John McGrory, recalled him Saturday as “extremely likeable,” but fiercely private, especially about health issues.

McGrory had positive memories of Colson, who lived across the street. There were Christmas gatherings together, and when McGrory and his wife told Colson their grandson had been incarcerated, he supported them.

“He spoke about his own situation and how he managed it. He wasn’t secretive about it,” McGrory said.

After moving to Naples, he kept a low profile, declining interview requests. The exception came in December 2008 when, after leaving the White House in disgrace 35 years earlier, he was honored by President George W. Bush in the Oval Office with the Presidential Citizens Medal, one of the highest citizen honors a president can bestow.

Colson was recognized for his “good heart and his compassionate efforts to renew a spirit of purpose in the lives of countless individuals,” the Bush White House wrote in a press release at the time.

“I do what I do because it’s God’s call on my life,” Colson said when reached on his cell phone that day by the Daily News. “It’s a wonderful story ... This is really redemption. There is hope for people that their lives can change.”

Colson’s wife, Patty, his three children and a daughter-in-law joined him for the ceremony.

“The Bushes are about the most gracious people I’ve ever known,” Colson said at the time.

In October 2000, then- Florida Gov. Jeb Bush restored Colson’s civil rights, allowing him to vote, sit on a jury, run for office and practice law. Jeb Bush called him “a great guy ... a great Floridian.”

Colson, with his trademark horn-rimmed glasses, was known as the “evil genius” of the Nixon administration who once said he’d walk over his grandmother to get the president elected to a second term.

“I shudder to think of what I’d been if I had not gone to prison,” Colson said in a rare interview in 1993. “Lying on the rotten floor of a cell, you know it’s not prosperity or pleasure that’s important, but the maturing of the soul.”

The Washington Post described him in 1972 as “one of the most powerful presidential aides, variously described as a troubleshooter and as a master of dirty tricks.”

He helped run the Committee to Re-elect the President when it set up an effort to gather intelligence on the Democratic Party. The arrest of CREEP’s security director, James W. McCord, and four other men burglarizing the Democratic National Committee offices in 1972 set off the scandal that led to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974.

But it was actions that preceded the actual Watergate break-in that resulted in Colson’s criminal conviction. Colson pleaded guilty to efforts to discredit Pentagon analyst Daniel Ellsberg. It was Ellsberg who had leaked the secret Defense Department study of Vietnam that became known as the Pentagon Papers.

The efforts to discredit Ellsberg included use of Nixon’s plumbers — a covert group established to investigate White House leaks in 1971 and to break into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist to look for information that could discredit Ellsberg’s anti-war efforts.

The Ellsberg burglary was revealed during the course of the Watergate investigation and became an element in the ongoing scandal. Colson pleaded guilty in 1974 to obstruction of justice in connection with attempts to discredit Ellsberg, though charges were dropped that Colson actually played a role in the burglary of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. Charges related to the actual Watergate burglary and cover-up were also dropped. He served seven months in prison.

Ellsberg, for his part, said in an interview that Colson never apologized to him and didn’t respond to several efforts Ellsberg made over the years to get in touch with him. Ellsberg said he still believes that Colson’s guilty plea was not a matter of contrition so much as an effort to head off even more serious allegations that Colson had sought to hire thugs to administer a beating against Ellsberg an allegation that Colson states in his book was believed by prosecutors despite his denial.

“I have no reason to doubt his evangelism,” Ellsberg said of Colson. “But I don’t think he felt any kind of regret” for what he had done, except remorse that he had been ineffective and got caught.

Colson stayed with his faith and went on to win praise, including the prestigious Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion for his efforts to use it to help others. Colson later called going to prison a “great blessing.”

He created the Prison Fellowship Ministries in 1976 to minister to prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families. It runs work-release programs, marriage seminars and classes to help prisoners after they get out. An international offshoot established chapters around the world.

“You can’t leave a person in a steel cage and expect something good to come out of him when he is released,” Colson said in 2001.

His approach led to court challenges to the use of state facilities to foster one religion, Christianity, in violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.

While faith was a large part of his message, Colson also tackled such topics as prison overpopulation and criticized the death penalty, though he thought it could be justified in rare cases. He said those convicted of nonviolent crimes should be put on community-service projects instead of being locked up.

He wrote more than 20 books, including “Born Again: What Really Happened to the White House Hatchet Man,” which was turned into a movie. Royalties from all his books have gone to his ministry program, as did the $1 million Templeton prize, which he won in 1993.

The Boston native earned his bachelor’s degree from Brown University in 1953 and served as a captain in the Marine Corps from 1953 to 1955. In 1959, he received his doctorate with honors from George Washington University.

In February 2005, Colson was named one of Time magazine’s “25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America.”

Time commended Colson for helping to define compassionate conservatism through his campaign for humane prison conditions and called him one of “evangelicalism’s more thoughtful public voices.”

“After decades of relative abstention, Colson is back in power politics,” Time wrote.

Mark Earley, a former Virginia attorney general who became president and chief executive officer of PFM after his failed gubernatorial run in 2001, said the influence of Colson’s work in his ministry is a different kind of power from what he had as Nixon’s special counsel.

“Yet, it wasn’t until he lost that power, what most people would call real `power,’ that Chuck began to make a real difference and exercise the only kind of influence that really matters,” Earley said.

Colson himself credited the Watergate scandal with enriching his life.

God “used that experience (Watergate) to raise up a ministry that is reaching hundreds of thousands of people,” Colson said in the late 1990s. “So I’m probably one of the few guys around that’s saying, `I’m glad for Watergate.”’

Earlier

Charles Colson, who served seven months in prison for his role in the Watergate cover-up and later retired to Naples and founded a prison ministry, has died, according to reports today by a national church newsletter and on the Washington Post website.

He was 80.

The Post reported that he maintained a residence in the Washington area also and that he died Saturday in Inova Fairfax Hospital.

The Post and newsletter both reported he a brain hemorrhage several weeks ago and died from complications.

Colson became a born-again Christian and in 1976 founded Prison Fellowship Ministries, a volunteer-based organization that brings Bible study and a Christian message to prison inmates and their families.

Return to naplesnews.com later today for more on this developing story

© 2012 Naples Daily News. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Comments » 27

dab writes:

God Bless, Mr. Colson. Thanks for your ministry.

brown writes:

Chuck was known for his very progressive views..

savethewhalz writes:

Chuck Colson is the modern day example of redemption. Semper Fi.

staghorn writes:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

meex writes:

For forty (40) years, they always referred to Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist--never have they ever used his/her name. Does he/she have one?

bananas8187 writes:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

OddsMaker (Inactive) writes:

He has been an inspiration to many of us. May he rest in peace.

donkeydrone writes:

Funny how the dregs of society can only chastise one party but not theirs when equal amounts of crimes have occurred on both sides of the tracks. I'm so glad I'm an independant so I don't have to care for either side.

Klaatu writes:

in response to OddsMaker:

He has been an inspiration to many of us. May he rest in peace.

I'm happy he gave you ex-cons hope !

Sick writes:

It was not his fault. He was set up.

drolds writes:

in response to OddsMaker:

He has been an inspiration to many of us. May he rest in peace.

I didn't know you could log in from prison.

sharks2009 writes:

If you were to sum up the life of Chuck Colson in one word, the word would be REDEMPTION. There is not much to say with regards to Mr. Colson and Watergate he was guilty, it was out there for the whole world to see, Chuck did his time and sought forgiveness. You can call him a "crook", you can say that his faith was a "cover-up" but the evidence is in the fruit that was produced out of his life following his release from prison. He was a different man, he did not go back to his old ways, he focused his life on helping others. We could all learn from him. Well Done!

HAP writes:

The corruption in the White House today, is nothing compared to what he did. Obama should be arrested and jailed for all the damage he has done. But, he'd never apologize.

volochine writes:

When I read the headline that Mr. Colson had passed away, I was curious and sad.

When I read the rest of it, I realized Mr. Colson's publicity agent is still alive and well.

Spin it anyway you want. The facts are known and the history has passed.

lionfishhunter writes:

Actually, Nixon was a pretty good president. He accomplished a lot of good things . he would be considered a progressive liberal by today's Tea Party standards. it's too bad power corrupted him and his associates.

ga#258528 writes:

Chuck Colson contributed positively to many lives giving them real hope in life...why did the Naples Daily New choose to use negative reference in their headline???

Lemme writes:

The Karl Rove of his time.. another crooked republican!

SayMan writes:

Leave it to a putz like G. W. Bush to award Colson a Presidential Citizens Medal. Colson and his pals only did their best to subvert the electoral process in an election that Nixon would have won easily by simply standing on his head and waving his arms. Apparenly God isn't much on the electoral process either so he/she gave him pass or at least that's what Chuck concluded.

OddsMaker (Inactive) writes:

in response to Klaatu:

I'm happy he gave you ex-cons hope !

Not an ex-con yet. But I'll look you up when I get out.

OddsMaker (Inactive) writes:

in response to drolds:

I didn't know you could log in from prison.

You would be surprised what you can arrange from inside a cell with enough money and the right outside connections.

GaryR writes:

HAP you are correct. I would add Eric Holder should be brought to justice soon. He has done much worse and continues to hold his post.

milo writes:

CC spent his career destroying anyone he could. He was known as the "Evil Genius" for his dirty tricks during the sick days of the Nixon Era. HE WAS A LOW LIFE OF THE FIRST DEGREE, like many of Nixons aides, CC "found religion" AFTER he got caught, AND TURNED RELIGION INTO A BIG BUSINESS. I AM SURE THAT GOD HAD PLENTY TO SAY TO THIS PHONY.

Colorado (Inactive) writes:

in response to CaptainQuagmire:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Give me a break. He was a criminal and a good republican (isn't that almost the same thing?). Then he found Jesus----how convenient.

Naples71 writes:

Many people here obviously think a person can't change. He said he was guilty and that he deserved to go to jail. He has been on the stright and narrow doing good in the world for 40 years since he left jail. If this is a scam he has carried it off for a record time. Redemption is possible and Colson proved it.

Opinionated writes:

Not trying to change the cander of this tread...

I was eating lunch with my parents at the old First Watch Restaurant on Banyan Blvd. years ago and saw G. Gordon Liddy and friends sitting in the adjacent table. Not sure who his friends were.

thebiblesays writes:

This story says, "His approach led to court challenges to the use of state facilities to foster one religion, Christianity, in violation of the constitutional separation of church and state."

Somebody tell me where in the US constitution it says that there is separation of church and state. Read it and tell me where. It was never written in the constitution. It was written in a letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Baptist Association of Danbury, CT. Check your history!

almostcracker writes:

in response to thebiblesays:

This story says, "His approach led to court challenges to the use of state facilities to foster one religion, Christianity, in violation of the constitutional separation of church and state."

Somebody tell me where in the US constitution it says that there is separation of church and state. Read it and tell me where. It was never written in the constitution. It was written in a letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Baptist Association of Danbury, CT. Check your history!

It's actually in the First Amendment (Bill of Rights), which is part of the Constitution: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

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