Charles W. Colson, Watergate Felon Who Became Evangelical Leader, Dies at 80

He grew up at 15 different addresses in and around the city and attended eight schools. He got his first taste of politics as a teenage volunteer during Robert F. Bradford’s re-election campaign as Governor of Massachusetts. He recalled learning “all the tricks”, including “sowing misleading stories in the press, voting tombstones and spying on the opposition in every way possible”.

He graduated from Browne & Nichols, a private school in Cambridge, in 1949, and went to Brown University on a scholarship from the Navy Reserve Officer Training Program. After graduating in 1953, he married his college sweetheart, Nancy Billings, and joined the Marines.

In 1956, Mr. Colson went to Washington as an administrative assistant to Senator Leverett Saltonstall, a Republican from Massachusetts. He met Nixon, who was then Vice President, and became, in his words, a “Nixon fanatic” for life. The two men “understood each other”, Mr. Colson wrote in “Born Again”, his memoir. They were “proud men who sought the most elusive goal of all – acceptance and respect from those who had rejected us.”

After earning a law degree from George Washington University in 1959, Mr. Colson became a partner in a Washington law firm, still practicing politics on the side, with a view to a Nixon presidency. It was crushed when its candidate lost the 1960 election by a hair to Senator John F. Kennedy.

A sympathetic biography, “Charles W. Colson: A Life Redeemed” (2005), by Jonathan Aitken, depicts him in those years as an amoral, hard-drinking, chain-smoking, amoral man with three young children – Wendell Ball II , Christian and Emily Ann – and a failed marriage. He divorced his first wife and married Patricia Ann Hughes in 1964.

She, three children and five grandchildren are among Mr. Colson’s survivors.

In 1973, while looking for work after leaving the White House and fearing that he would end up in prison, Mr. Colson got into his car and found himself in the throes of the spiritual crisis that led to his conversion. “This so-called White House henchman, former Navy captain, was crying too hard to put the keys in the ignition,” he recalled. “I sat there for a long time that night, deeply convinced of my own sin.”

Barry F. Howard