Charles Colson, rest in peace

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.

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  • John M.

    “Preaching the Gospels”? Please don’t write about sports if you don’t know the difference between a field goal and a touchdown, and please don’t write about religion if you don’t know the difference between the Gospels and the gospel. And this was a pre-written obit?

    I’m sorry if this seems nitpicky, but it’s like nails on a chalkboard.


  • Jerry

    saying he had been “born again,”

    I don’t understand why there are scare quotes around “born again”. Maybe I’m missing something, but that seems to be a mistake.

  • Raymond Billy

    If you want to read a hatchet job, read The Los Angeles Times obituary. It was all about the Watergate era. Why on earth would The Times focus on the early ’70s instead of the ensuing 40 years that most people will remember Colson for?

  • carl jacobs

    The skepticism exhibited towards Chuck Colson’s religious conversion is a manifestation of the media’s skepticism towards religion in general, and “fundamentalist” religion in particular. Since they don’t think it possesses any objective reality, they have difficulty crediting any good outcomes to its account. Instead they expect the man who legitimately repents to move in the direction of their own worldview. The reversion to “fundamentalist” religion only makes him more suspect. It tacitly denies the presence of “enlightenment” that would legitimize in the media’s eyes the journey that Colson claimed to have made. Now if Colson’s experience had been more along the lines of Frank Schaeffer, then I suspect he would have received much friendlier obituaries. This is yet one more manifestation of the monochromatic ideology of the newsroom.


  • Jeff

    There are scare quotes around “born again” because they want you to be scared by the fact that Colson was born again — either that or they want you to doubt that he was born again.

    But since neither the fear nor the doubt are substantiated, the scare quotes are unjustified; they are cheap shots and low blows — in other words, along with errors, just what you’d expect in an MSM piece on Colson’s life and death.

  • Mattk

    I heard a really good story – and by good I mean balanced – on NPR. It went into Colson’s badness, played a tape of him telling about his conversion, mentioned that a lot of people didn’t believe it, mentioned that he went to prison after his conversion (This was news to me, I thought he converted in prison until today) mentioned the Prison Fellowship, talked about the Protestant Catholic thing in the mid 90s, and interviewed Bary Lynn who said what we all knew he would say. I was very impressed with the story.

  • Roberto

    The whole “jailhouse conversion” meme causes the media to miss out on some aspects to the story that would make it even more interesting to readers. For instance, one of the people who was most instrumental in Chuck’s conversion was Senator Harold Hughes of Iowa who figured prominently on Nixon’s “enemies list.” Or that congressman Al Quie of Minnesota wanted serve to CWC’s sentence for him.

    Obviously, something big and real had happened before Chuck ever entered prison.

    All in all, I found the coverage to be better than I expected. The second wave is where I expect the knives to come out.

  • Julia

    It’s possible that the regular media doesn’t mention much of Colson’s prison fellowship and his work on joint projects with Evangelicals and Catholics because they didn’t read much about it over the years. Most of the reporting about those aspects of his post-prison life was in the religious press or the special religion sections of mainstream media. Considering the lack of church-going among reporters that shows up in polls, they surely don’t pay much attention to that kind of reporting.

    I know I learned about the Evangelical-Catholic projects from reading First Things. BTW I think his wife is Catholic.

  • Matt

    The most atrocious hatchet job I saw appeared on the very popular internet blog “Gawker”. On the day of his death, they referred to him as a “d*ck”. (No, I don’t mean “duck”.) I try to read perspectives from various sides of the political and cultural arena, but this was too much for me; I unsubscribed to their feed and repent of ever reading their mean spirited drivel.

  • Jeff


    Journalists are paid to know things and to know how to learn the things they don’t know.

    They didn’t have to read First Things to know about Colson — they only had to read his Wikipedia page.

    I hope we haven’t gotten to a point where that’s too much to ask.