Monday, 23 April 2012


My obituary of Charles Colson, Nixon's hatchet man turned born-again evangelical and prison reformer, is up at the Guardian online. You can link to it here, and hope to see it in tomorrow's print edition.

If I'd had more space I would have liked to detail more of Colson's dirty tricks--the one that stands out involves the assassination of George Wallace. When Arthur Bremer shot Wallace, Nixon was taped asking Colson about Bremer's politics. 'Well, he's going to be a left-winger by the time we get through,' Colson told him, and explainedhow Bremer might be framed. 'Good, keep at that,' exclaimed the President. One of the key elements of evidence against Bremer was his diary. In a long review of E. Howard Hunt's oeuvre in the New York Review of Books, Gore Vidal pointed out similarities between Hunt's spy novels and Bremer's diaries and argued convincingly that Hunt was their author. Of course, it was Colson who had brought his college friend Hunt into the White House in the first place. The pattern of creating a false leftist identity echoed Lee Oswald, while the diary was a major element of the case against Sirhan Sirhan. Just saying.

There are a couple of things missing from what I wrote, partly because the paper wanted an extended explanation of his role in Watergate, which took away part of the space from details of the rest of his life. It was a shame not to include the acronym for Nixon's Committee To Re-Elect The President, the wonderfully apposite, CREEP.

I was fascinated by a couple of links. Colson's dad did work for the SEC, but attended law school at night, and the family moved around Boston peripatetically because his mother, nicknamed Dizzy, was a sprendthift. Eventually, his father practiced law, and Colson went to Brown & Nichols. But he later claimed to have turned down a scholarship offer from Harvard to attend Brown on Naval ROTC, which seems somewhat unlikely. Of course it was at Brown that he and Hunt first hooked up.

Colson's work on Saltonstall's 1960 campaign was his first major 'dirty trick', though he claimed to have learned the basics as a teenager working on Republican governor Robert Bradford's re-election. He formed a bogus committee to link Saltonstall (Massachusetts' Republican senator) with John Kennedy (the Democratic candidate for President against Nixon). He may have had Kennedy's connivance in this, although JFK was always going to win his home state. But Colson claimed to have sent the committee's literature to 'every Irish name in the phone book', and it worked. Saltonstall ran well ahead of Nixon and won re-election to Senate.

When he and a partner set up their law practice in Boston and Washington, one of their first clients was Raytheon, a major defense contractor, a connection likely made while Colson was working with Saltonstall. But they added Raytheon's former counsel to the firm, along with the former head of the SEC, whom Colson may have known through his father. These two partners were so important, that their names (Hannah and Gadsby) replaced Colson and Morin as the firm's name. Raytheon's chairman, Thomas Phillips, would be crucial in Colson's later conversion.

The paper was also strangely reticient in labelling Colson's biographer, Jonathan Aitken, a 'disgraced' former cabinet minister--even the Telegraph called him that. I wrote that Colson might have provided Aitken with a road map to redemption (and a cynic might say to non-profit profit). Aitken would have been well aware of Colson's life after writing his 1993 hagiography of Nixon, and he followed in Colson's footsteps--highly promoted prison memoir, non-profit Christian prison reform etc--so closely that his 2005 biography of Colson could be read as an exercise in self-justification, if not congratulation. I especially loved Aitken's revealing choice of the adjective 'maniacal' to describe Colson's energy.

I didn't get a chance to go into some of Colson's positions, the most interesting of which were his efforts to form links with conservative Roman Catholic groups--something which was anathema t0 many of his evangelical followers and partners. He never sought a high political profile, like so many of often-disgraced and unabashedly political Christian conservative leaders--but he did manage to express his disappointment with the Obama presidency, saying the President had turned into 'an ideologue'--something repulsive to fundamentalists. Among his 30 books was one he co-wrote about intelligent design.

Colson was always one of the more irritating of the Nixon flunkies, though, as Greg Marmalarde would say, each in their own way was outstanding. In Colson's case it was the horn-rimmed glasses and pipe, like a character from Mad Men, and the avuncular face full of contempt for outsiders. It was a Scandinavian face not unlike my father's at the same time, when he was getting jowly, and I found that disconcerting. Colson famously had a Green Beret saying mounted behind his desk: 'if you've got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow'. Like many of those who display similar bravado, when the crush came, he followed with abandon.

The big problem with writing this obit, and being respectful to the dead as I always try to be in print, is that a natural cynicism takes over. I tried to express that through Daniel Ellsberg's reluctance to forgive and forget (John Dean was more forgiving). Colson's conversion came at just the right time to make excuses for a plea bargain, and avoid giving testimony. He seemed to live pretty well in his world of non-profit 'ministries', much of the funding of which came from tax dollars--at one point courts ruled against public funds paying for prison programmes that excluded those unwilling to be born again, and one thinks of many of those joining such programmes in the same way hungry men sing hymns in Salvation Army soup kitchens. I wasn't about to denigrate Colson's work--but in many ways it seemed he was propagating the same ideological agenda as he had in the Nixon White House, with a kinder, gentler front, but, as we have seen from the attitude of those born-again to those who are not, a kinder gentler enemies list as well.

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