Charles Colson, from TIME’s Archives

  • Share
  • Read Later
Keystone-France / Gamma-Keystone / Getty Images

Charles Colson, the former advisor to President Nixon testifies about the Chief of State's role in the Ellsberg affair in Washington on July 22, 1974.

As a special counsel to President Nixon, Charles Colson often advised the commander-in-chief on groundbreaking issues — including helping to construct the devious Watergate scheme that led to the takedown of Nixon and many of his key aides. Colson was convicted of obstruction of justice in the Watergate scandal, for which he served seven months in jail. Just before he was put behind bars, he became an Evangelical Christian, which some condemned as a ploy to get a lighter sentence. But indeed the man who was once called an “evil genius” politico was converted into to a soft-sided religious figure. Colson founded Prison Fellowship Ministries, a work-release program and launched a crusade for prison reform. He died April 21, 2012, at the age of 80.

TIME has traced Colson’s career from the high-profile Watergate scandal to his final years as a well-known radio host and compassionate religious leader. Here’s what’s been written about him over the past five decades.

(MORE: Charles Colson: Watergate’s Tough Guy)

On His Sometimes Sour Relationships:

Colson’s troubles are not likely to sadden his former White House colleagues. He was probably more disliked, as well as feared, than any other White House aide. Even that awesome guardian of the Oval Office, H.R. Haldeman, was one of Colson’s harshest critics. He once complained to a subordinate that “Colson is always doing things behind my back.” (Sept. 24, 1973)

On the Charges Against Him:

Pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for devising a scheme to get and disseminate derogatory information about Pentagon Papers Defendant Daniel Ellsberg in 1971; serving a one-to-three-year sentence. (Jan. 13,1975)

On a Rapid Transformation:

While he was behind bars, Colson bent rules to help fellow inmates; outside, he has dedicated himself to bringing them the hope of salvation. Brown leather Bible in hand, Colson, 46, now speaks in prisons and organizes week-long inmate seminars. His most dramatic program has brought 107 convicts to Washington for two weeks of Bible study, after which they return to proselytize fellow cons from the inside. (Dec. 26, 1977)

(PHOTOS: Time Covers Watergate)

On His Former Boss’s Undying Respect:

He sometimes discusses the various Watergate characters. He describes G. Gordon Liddy as “nutty,” but wonders about Jeb Stuart Magruder. “He appeared to be confused as to how someone like Magruder could have become involved in such a thing,” explains one of his visitors. Nixon retains respect for Charles Colson, according to one source, “because Chuck never turned on him.” (Aug. 11, 1975)

On His Inherent Slyness:

By contrast, Haldeman contends, the crafty Colson became a Nixon intimate by deliberately appealing to Nixon’s vindictive instincts. And that volatile combination of the unchecked worst in both Nixon and Colson, Haldeman suggests, was the cause of Watergate. (Feb. 27, 1978)

On His Post-Prison Affairs:

Considered toughest, meanest of Nixon’s hardball political advisers. Pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice. Served seven months. Although cynics sneered, he claimed to have been born again; few now doubt his religious sincerity. Has led full-time Prison Fellowship program, promoting Christianity among convicts, fighting for better prison conditions and more effective rehabilitation. Lecturer. (Jun. 14, 1982)

On his Personal Faith:

Colson’s contrite tone seemed well suited to the new life he has proclaimed for himself—that of devotion to Jesus. A nominal Episcopalian who goes to Mass with his second wife Patty, a Catholic, Colson embarked on his spiritual conversion more than a year ago. (June 17, 1974)

On Separation of Church and State:

Colson argues that each institution has a distinct, God-given role. Churches should emphasize spirituality and avoid the corrupting enticements of political power. Similarly, he opposes government- organized school prayers, insisting that “propagating moral vision” should be the job of the church, not the state. (Nov. 16, 1987)

(LIST: The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America)

On Redemption:

[H]e was awarded the most lucrative religious prize on the face of the earth: the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, which carries a $1 million-plus award, previously granted to Mother Teresa and Billy Graham. “Twenty years later,” says Colson, “I see how God has used my life. Sometimes the greatest adversities turn out to be the greatest blessings.” (March 1, 1993)

On an Unprecedented Turnaround:

His ministry’s success (a University of Pennsylvania study found that graduates of the prison program were 60% less likely to be reincarcerated than was the average con) and his campaign for humane prison conditions helped define compassionate conservatism and served as a model for the faith-based initiatives that Bush favors. (Feb. 7, 2005)

On Gathering Inspiration:

[C.S. Lewis’] words have altered lives, some quite prominent: Charles Colson was exposed to Lewis when he had the conversion that eventually transformed him from a jailed Nixon henchman to a mover in Evangelical politics and ideas. (Oct. 30, 2005)

–Samantha Grossman and Nick Carbone