Monday, April 23, 2012

Nixon's 'Evil Genius' Dies

In the Nixon White House, Charles Colson was known as an "evil genius," a master of "dirty tricks," the guy who (reportedly) said he would walk over his own grandmother to ensure the re–election of Richard Nixon.

He was more than 18 years younger than Nixon so, I suppose, it was appropriate that he should die nearly 18 years to the day after Nixon did.

And, to many, I suppose, his story is an inspiring one, even if Nixon's is not — a man who spent the first half of his life exploiting the weaknesses in the system and the second half of his life trying to repair them.

It is a story, I guess, of one man's quest for redemption, and that is something I can appreciate. Once, when I was filling out a job application, I had to answer the following question — "What is your favorite word and why?"

My answer was that my favorite word was redemption because it suggests that no mistake or bad decision a person makes in his/her life is permanent, that a second chance is always possible.

And, in hindsight, it is clear Colson's life — well, the first half of it, anyway — was loaded with mistakes and bad decisions.

He was involved in the decisions to develop and fund the infamous White House Plumbers unit to gather intelligence on the Democrats, and at least one recording of a conversation he had with Nixon in June 1972 indicates his early involvement in efforts to obstruct justice in the Watergate investigation.

Colson was in prison when Nixon resigned the presidency, and he emerged about five months later with a new purpose in life.

It is understandable, I presume, that those who had been the targets of his wrath were skeptical, but Colson apparently was a changed man. And, on the occasion of his death, that unwillingness to acknowledge that Colson turned over a new leaf offends his defenders.

"Prison opened his eyes not only to God," writes Fr. Johannes Jacobse in The Observer, "but the desperate conditions of other prisoners."

He points out that Colson founded Prison Fellowship, a Christian outreach program for prisoners and ex–prisoners and their families.

"The world has lost a good man," asserts Fr. Jacobse.

In the South Florida Sun–Sentinel, James D. Davis laments the overemphasis in the media on Colson's political career and under–emphasis on his faith–based activities.

"Even in reporting his death, not everyone grasped the spiritual side of Colson," writes Davis, observing that "[o]f the 57 paragraphs in the Washington Post's obituary, only seven or eight dealt with the faith that steered his life for more than 38 years — and three of the paragraphs mentioned the 'skepticism and even hilarity' from many columnists who heard of his conversion."

Personally, I always felt Colson was sincere in his expression of faith. I was still young when he was released from prison, and I was no more certain then than I am today that I shared his beliefs, but the things he said seemed genuine to me.

I was brought up in the buckle of the Bible Belt, so when I say Colson's words and actions seemed plausible to me, you can believe it. I think I know the real article when I see it.

That doesn't mean that it wouldn't be possible for someone to fake the "born again" experience.

And, to be sure, I have seen my share of people who fooled others with some well–chosen words and phrases. Sooner or later, their deceptions were exposed.

But Colson matched the words with deeds for four decades.

If he started out as a phony, a disbeliever, he must have become persuaded at some point. It would take a remarkably skilled hypocrite to pull off such a charade for that long.

Colson was always true to his conservative beliefs, which he reconciled with his religious beliefs. He opposed homosexuality, and, although he never (to my knowledge) contended that Hurricane Katrina was some sort of judgment or punishment from God, he did say it was a "warning" from God and implied that there would be worse to come if it was ignored: "[O]ne lesson I learned from Katrina is that we had better win the war on terror and resolve to prevent another 9–11. Katrina exposed how easy it would be to take a city out."

Ironically, it seems to me, Charles Colson, who spent a significant portion of the first half of his life driving wedges between people went on to spend a significant portion of the second half of his life trying to bring them together.

And Sarah Pulliam Bailey of wishes more of the writers who seem to remember only the first half of that life would move on.

"It's clear that some reporters are stuck in the 1970s," Bailey writes, "apparently unaware of how the state of evangelicalism was shaped by Colson's complex life and legacy."

Maybe that is Colson's real legacy. Perhaps, in Colson's own story of redemption is a cautionary tale for the rest of us about our relationships with each other.

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