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Wielding the Hatchet

The Washington Post takes a cheap shot at Charles Colson.

11:30 AM, Sep 20, 2005 • By SCOTT W. JOHNSON
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AS SPECIAL COUNSEL to President Richard Nixon Charles Colson was known as Nixon's hatchet man and one of the most hated men in America. After he left the Nixon administration he was caught in the snare of Watergate. Although he was only peripherally involved in the scandal, he pled guilty and served seven months in prison on an attenuated criminal charge related to the Ellsberg break-in.

In 1976 Colson published Born Again, a best-selling account of the conversion experience that followed his government service but preceded his incarceration. When Nicholas von Hoffman reviewed the book for the Washington Post that year, the political animosity deriving from Colson's government service remained evident in von Hoffman's ridicule of Colson's conversion as "a socially approved way of having a nervous breakdown."

Colson nevertheless found his calling in prison. In 1976 he established the Prison Fellowship Ministry, an organization devoted to the spiritual needs of prison inmates. Among the successful and innovative programs of the PFM are the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (a prisoner rehabilitation program) and Angel Tree (a program providing gifts for the children of incarcerated parents).

Since founding the PFM in 1976, Colson has gone to extraordinary lengths to establish the bona fides of his ministry. From the beginning he turned over all speaking fees and prize money to the ministry. For the first three years of its operation he drew no salary. After he started drawing a modest salary in 1980, he contributed all royalties earned on Born Again to the organization. (The royalties are not insubstantial; Born Again has now sold some three million copies.)

When Colson won the Templeton Prize in 1993, he contributed the accompanying monetary award of $1,000,000 to the PFM. The amount that Colson has contributed to PFM over the years must surely dwarf the salary and benefits he has been paid by it. The extent, longevity, and sincerity of Colson's good works have gone a long way to defuse the animosity aroused by his service in the Nixon administration.

Occasionally, however, the old animosity resurfaces. On September 4, the Washington Post's Book World ran a review by Professor David Greenberg of Jonathan Aitken's biography Charles W. Colson: A Life Redeemed. For those familiar with Colson's good works and charitable contributions, the review reads like a dirty trick or, in the words of the review, a "smear job." Greenberg writes:

[W]hile Colson's current schemes [promoting President Bush's faith-based initiative] surely don't merit him more jail time, they hardly suggest a meaningfully changed man. Indeed, in the book's final pages, Aitken fleetingly mentions that grants from Bush's faith-based initiative now fill Colson's coffers. In this context, it seems, "redemption" means cashing in.

Aitken's book, however, mentions no such thing. In the passage to which Greenberg seems to be alluding, Aitken writes:

President Bush has publicly supported the IFI [InnerChange Freedom Initiative] prisons and the Angel Tree scheme.

Bush's public support of the IFI prison program and Angel Tree, however, has been limited to his verbal expression of admiration for them and his personal participation in an Angel Tree gift-giving event in December 2003. Moreover, since its establishment in 1976, the Prison Fellowship Ministry has never accepted federal funds. How Bush's faith-based initiative has filled Colson's coffers is a mystery known only to Professor Greenberg.

Greenberg's misreading of Aitken's book seems almost willfully perverse. Aitken outlines the extraordinary measures to which Colson has gone to maintain the integrity of his ministry and to protect himself from the charge that he is "cashing in" on his faith. On pages 299-300, for example, Aitken discusses Colson's financial arrangements with PFM in detail--both his salary from and contributions to the organization. Aitken concludes the discussion:

The skeptical voices that in the post-Watergate era suggested Colson must be starting up a Christian ministry in order to feather his own nest have long ago been silenced by his impeccable track record of personal generosity and financial planning.

It is disheartening to note that Colson's impeccable track record of personal generosity has been insufficient, even at this late date, to silence Greenberg's unfounded biases.

One would think that the Post would want to correct Greenberg's error and apologize to Colson for the unwarranted imputation of Gantryism. On September 7 Mark Earley sent a letter to the editor seeking a correction. At last word, the Post has consented to run Earley's letter. Three weeks after the fact, publishing Earley's letter seems barely adequate to the task before the Post.

Scott Johnson is a contributing writer to THE DAILY STANDARD and a contributor to the blog Power Line.