Charles Colson, who we discussed earlier this week, has died. Due to his significance in American life and his age, many papers had obituaries ready. The New York Times described the man this way in the lede:
Charles W. Colson, who served as a political saboteur for President Richard M. Nixon, masterminded some of the dirty tricks that led to the president’s downfall, then emerged from prison to become an important evangelical leader, saying he had been “born again,” died Saturday. He was 80.
There’s a hint that there might be some problems with the timeline the Times is working with, and by the fourth paragraph it’s clear that there’s a problem:
Mr. Colson was sent to prison after pleading guilty to obstructing justice in the Watergate affair. After having what he called his religious awakening behind bars, he spent much of the rest of his life ministering to prisoners, preaching the Gospels and helping to forge a coalition among Republican politicians, evangelical church leaders and Roman Catholic conservatives, helping to change the dynamics of American politics.
It was a remarkable reversal.
One of the things that made Colson so interesting, of course, was that he actually became a born again Christian prior to going to prison. He was converted in a bipartisan Bible study group.
Here is the essential fact — he converted prior to pleading guilty. He’d been charged with conspiracy to cover up the Watergate burglary right after his conversion. He told prosecutors he wouldn’t plea bargain and he hadn’t done what he’d been charged with. But, he told them, he had obstructed justice and if they wanted to charge him with that, he would plead guilty. They did and he did.
I didn’t know that myself until I read this Slate column I reviewed a couple of years ago.
The Washington Post did not commit the same timeline error. In their piece, headlined “Chuck Colson dies at 80: Nixon aide, Watergate scandal figure became an evangelist” (although you might want to check out the original URL), we are told:
Charles W. Colson, the Republican political operative who boasted he would “walk over my own grandmother” to ensure the reelection of President Richard M. Nixon and went on to found a worldwide prison fellowship ministry after his conversion to evangelical Christianity, died April 21 Inova Fairfax Hospital. He was 80. …
It was the targeting of Ellsberg — rather than Mr. Colson’s peripheral involvement in the growing Watergate break-in scandal — that eventually led to his conviction for obstruction of justice. In the midst of this crisis, Mr. Colson said he underwent a profound religious transformation in August 1973.
Acting against the advice of his lawyers, Mr. Colson pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, a step that he depicted as “a price I had to pay to complete the shedding of my old life and to be free to live the new.”
The ellipses mark a few paragraphs about his political life prior to his conversion. The piece balances his multiple claims to fame but it strongly favors his political work over the religious and it’s clear that the paper most known for its reportage on Watergate remains skeptical about Colson the man.
I reviewed another Washington Post piece about Colson last year that was written by the same guy who wrote this obit and, to put it mildly, was not very friendly. I called it a “Mean Girls” take on the man. But there was one part that made me laugh:
So dark was Colson’s reputation that much of Washington laughed skeptically when he announced that he had embraced Christianity.
“Someone in the newsroom wrote a fake headline saying ‘Christ Rejects Colson.’ Here was the toughest of the tough,” said Bob Woodward, an assistant managing editor for The Post who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the Watergate scandal with partner Carl Bernstein.
Apart from these things, I thought the New York Times piece was much more interesting and well written. It devoted a good chunk to Colson’s work bringing evangelicals and Catholics together on social action, an aspect of Colson’s life completely ignored by the Post, oddly. I don’t really understand how you leave that out!
Both obituaries quote Colson freely. He had very colorful quotes and his comments are oft-remembered by people who love politics, which includes many journalists. So I thought the Times did a nice job of including political and religious quotes, including this kicker (the Post kicker was a quote about Nixon):
“This so-called White House hatchet man, ex-Marine captain, was crying too hard to get the keys into the ignition,” he remembered. “I sat there for a long time that night deeply convicted of my own sin.”
Please let us know if you see any particularly good or bad coverage.
Also, please remember to keep comments focused on media coverage. We’ve had a deluge of comments from people who simply want to vent their very strong feelings for or against Colson, with or without the faintest veneer of media talk. This is not the place to make those comments. Thank you.