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LIKE ICARUS, a prideful Chuck Colson, political dirty trickster, flew too close to the sun. His eventual fall ended not in death, but in a new birth.
Mr. Colson, 80, died Saturday of a brain hemorrhage he sustained March 30. Few people who followed politics closely in the early 1970s would have recognized the craggy-faced, grandfatherly advocate for the underdog as the same man who said he would trample his grandmother's grave to get Richard Nixon re-elected. But then, he wasn't really the same man.
Born in 1931 in Boston, Mr. Colson served in the Marine Corps before earning his J.D. and settling in as a Washington lawyer. He'd learned political dirty tricks early, as a teenage volunteer in a Massachusetts governor's campaign.
But it was as Nixon's hatchet man that Mr. Colson truly showed his dark side. He was the author of Nixon's famous enemies list, proposed firebombing the Brookings Institution to steal damaging papers, and used a former CIA operative to swipe Daniel Ellsberg's file from a psychiatrist's office to leak information about the antiwar protester. Mr. Colson was, as he said later, "ruthless," until one of his dirty tricks backfired. The break-in of the Democratic campaign headquarters at the Watergate Hotel became the catalyst for Mr. Colson's downfall--and Nixon's.
Mr. Colson resigned from the White House in March 1973 and was indicted a year later on obstruction of justice charges. Broken, facing trial and possible jail time, Mr. Colson was at the low point of his life when one of his friends gave him a copy of C.S. Lewis' "Mere Christianity." Convicted of his own sin, Mr. Colson sat in his car: "This so-called White House hatchet man, ex-Marine captain," he wrote later, "was crying too hard to get the keys into the ignition."
Mr. Colson pleaded guilty to obstruction and went to jail for seven months. Seeing firsthand the plight of prisoners, he founded Prison Fellowship Ministries shortly after his release. Today it is the world's largest outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families, providing spiritual support and material care. In 1983, Mr. Colson founded the Justice Fellowship to push for prison reform. His voluntary InnerChange Initiative has proven highly successful in preventing recidivism. And it was Mr. Colson, in the George W. Bush administration, who first pushed the idea of using the power of the federal government to fight human trafficking.
The change wrought in Mr. Colson by his spiritual rebirth redirected his brilliant mind and passion to good causes. Humbled, he lifted others. Dying to his old ways, he truly lived.