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The Fallen Have Risen: Charles Colson honored

Bill Berkowitz: The Fallen Have Risen: Charles Colson honored by White House

by Bill Berkowitz

In his final days in office, President Bush is pallin' around with a former felon and a bomb plotter.

There is no way he could win a Pulitzer or Nobel Prize and he wasn't going to be honored by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, but in the final -- and often creepy -- days of the Bush Administration, President George W. Bush took time out from his schedule to present Charles Colson, Watergate felon and conservative evangelical Christian extraordinaire, with a Presidential Citizens Medal.

"For more than three decades, Chuck Colson has dedicated his life to sharing the message of God's boundless love and mercy with prisoners, former prisoners and their families," the White House said in the citation. "Through his strong faith and leadership, he has helped courageous men and women from around the world make successful transitions back into society."

According to the White House, "The Presidential Citizens Medal was established in November 13, 1969, to recognize U.S. citizens who have performed exemplary deeds of service for the nation. It is one of the highest honors the President can confer upon a civilian, second only to the Presidential Medal of Freedom." Past recipients include boxer Muhammad Ali, baseball great Henry "Hank" Aaaron, civil rights icon Dorothy Height, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Think Progress reminded us that "Colson was President Nixon's counsel from 1969-1973 and pleaded guilty in 1974 to obstruction of justice. Colson received a one to three year sentence, but served just seven months."

David Plotz at Slate described Colson's role in the Nixon Administration:

As special counsel to the president, he was Richard Nixon's hard man, the "evil genius" of an evil administration. According to Watergate historian Stanley Kutler, Colson sought to hire Teamsters thugs to beat up anti-war demonstrators, and he plotted to raid or firebomb the Brookings Institution. He eventually pleaded guilty to scheming to defame Daniel Ellsberg and interfering with his trial.

In 1974, Time magazine wrote:

Colson took on the tough jobs for the President. He leaked damaging or misleading information to the press about people who criticized the President, had young men hired to pose as homosexuals supporting McGovern at the Democratic National Convention, and engineered mail campaigns in favor of Nixon's policies. He allegedly ordered his close friend E. Howard Hunt to fabricate a State Department telegram implicating President Kennedy in the assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. At one point, according to Senate Watergate testimony, he urged that Washington's Brookings Institution be fire-bombed as a diversionary tactic in a raid to seize some politically damaging documents. 'Chuck could never play anything straight,' says one of his former underlings. 'Everything had to be contrived, a setup. Chuck always had to stuff the ballot box.'

A post by Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings pointed out that Colson "wrote the [now infamous] Enemies' List, [famously] said that he would walk over his own grandmother if it would help get Nixon re-elected, and hired the 'plumbers' who carried out the Watergate break-in."

Author Allan Lichtman in "White Protestant Nation," wrote about Colson's active involvement as an honored elder within Christian conservative circles:

Colson brought together politically conservative Catholics and Protestants for a statement of common beliefs, advised conservative politicians including Texas governor George W. Bush, and worked with Christian right leaders Pat Robertson and James Dobson on the development of political strategy. He disseminated conservative messages on sex roles, abortion, homosexuality, pornography, gay rights, and separation of church and state in his radio broadcasts and columns, reaching millions of Americans.

The arrival in theaters of the highly acclaimed film, "Frost/Nixon," and the recent release of nearly 200 more hours of President Nixon's tapes also brought Colson's name back into the news.

In an interview with Terry Gross, the host of National Public Radio's "Fresh Air" program, James Reston Jr., one of the researchers that helped David Frost prepare for the television interviews with former President Richard Nixon that is the subject of the film, "told some throat-grabbing stories about the information that he was able to come up with when he interviewed presidential aide Charles Colson," Jim Stovall pointed out at JPROF, the "Web site for teaching journalism."

In regard to the new tapes, Rick Perlstein, the author of "Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America," wrote in Newsweek that among the new excerpts were conversations between Nixon and Colson where they "compare George McGovern's sanctimonious statements after losing the 1972 election to Hitler's comment that 'the German people don't deserve me.'" In another Nixon-Colson confasb, Colson briefs the president on the success of his efforts to sabotage the business interests of The Washington Post, the better to neutralize the sting of the paper's Watergate revelations."

Rarely at a loss for words, Colson, when asked about the recent resignation of Richard Cizik from the National Association of Evangelicals, said: "For better or for worse, Rich became a great, polarizing figure. He was gradually, over a period of time, separating himself from the mainstream of evangelical belief and conviction. So I'm not surprised. I'm sorry for him, but I'm not disappointed for the evangelical movement."

In a June 2005 piece for Media Transparency tittled "The Resurrection of Charles Colson," I wrote:

Despite being named by Time magazine as one of the 25 most influential evangelical Christians in America, having a Presidential Chair established in his name at Calvin Theological Seminary, and running a $50 million dollar faith-based prison reform organization, Charles W. Colson is likely to always be remembered as one of President Richard Nixon's hatchet men during the Watergate years. In fact, since the recent revelation that W. Mark Felt was Watergate's "Deep Throat," Colson has received more media attention than at any time since the unfolding of the Watergate Affair.

.... seemingly profoundly affected by doing time, Colson reinvented himself and founded an organization called Prison Fellowship Ministries which aims to reform prison inmates through their acceptance of Jesus Christ as their saviour.

.... On October 3, 2002, Colson signed on to The Land Letter, which laid out 'theological support for a just war pre-emptive invasion of Iraq,' according to Wikipedia, [which was] [w]ritten by Richard D. Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Last year after several unfavorable court rulings temporarily stymied his prison faith-based programs, Colson took to singling out his critics, charging them with enabling terrorism. Colson's charge that opponents of his faith-based prison programs are enabling terrorism is "shocking, despicable and inflammatory." Annie Laurie Gaylor, the co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an organization that has filed several suits against government sponsored faith-based programs, told me in a telephone interview from San Francisco. "It's a gross insult to people who are opposed to Colson's faith-based programs to link them with terrorism."

And Colson singled out Barry Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, for special condemnation. "Unfortunately, opponents like...Lynn...are blind to this [the spread of Radical Islam in prisons], which puts more than the program at risk -- because, as we saw in the case of the shoe bomber, Richard Reid, groups that are now operating in the shadows of our prisons are a real danger to us."

"Colson's comments were astonishing," Lynn told me in a telephone interview at the time. "When I read it I could hardly believe what I was reading. There literally appears to be no level that Charles Colson will not stoop to these days. In this political climate, calling someone an aider and abettor of terrorism is the worst thing you can call somebody. He seems to have run out of any sensible arguments so he is turning to lies and character assassination."

No longer plotting to bomb the Brookings Institution, or fighting to redeem his reputation, is Charles Colson really a kinder and gentler soul? Not so much!

More than three decades after Watergate, it is very strange indeed that he could stop by the White House and pick up a Presidential Citizens Medal. Is this a great country or what?



Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement and a frequent writer for Z Magazine, Religion Dispatches and other online publications. He documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right from a progressive perspective.

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