Tricky Chuck

Reviewed by David Greenberg
Sunday, September 4, 2005


A Life Redeemed

By Jonathan Aitken

Doubleday. 436 pp. $24.95

In the annals of Nixoniana, Jonathan Aitken ranks, at least in the United States, among the more obscure figures. Fortunately, he is also among the more delightful.

Once a rising star in British politics, this Tory member of Parliament joined the post-Watergate effort to repair Richard M. Nixon's image. In 1978, he helped arrange for Nixon to speak at the Oxford Union Society, where the ex-president drew applause inside the hall and angry protests outside. In 1993, Aitken wrote an adoring biography, Nixon: A Life, that downplayed Nixon's crimes, put stock in wacky conspiracy theories about Watergate and toasted Tricky Dick as a statesman.

These efforts, alas, failed. Not only did Nixon's standing remain abysmal, but in 1999, in a glorious karmic turn, Aitken himself was sentenced to 18 months in prison for perjury and obstructing justice -- in a libel suit that (shades of Alger Hiss) he initiated. After incarceration, Aitken began his own Nixonian comeback bid. He found religion and, in the words of a British newspaper, emerged as "the most visible penitent since Job."

It gets even better. While journeying from mendacious pol to pious ex-con, Aitken sought guidance from none other than Charles W. Colson, Nixon's beefy old enforcer -- who himself had logged seven months behind bars for obstruction of justice before surfacing as an evangelist and informal adviser to President George W. Bush. Now, in what one hopes is the end to this tangled saga of perjury and piety, Aitken has written a biography of Colson that's even more adulatory than his Nixon tome.

Charles W. Colson -- the rougher, more familiar nickname "Chuck" is scarcely to be found in these pages -- tells the story of a working-class kid from Boston who attended Brown University, became a political aide to Sen. Leverett Saltonstall (R-Mass.) and rode Nixon's coattails to power. Since top Nixon advisers such as John Mitchell, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman lacked experience with Congress, Colson, a veteran Hill staffer, won the post of special counsel to the president. Once ensconced there, he distinguished himself (despite stiff competition) with the immortal moniker of "Nixon's hatchet man."

Notwithstanding the generally exculpatory tenor of this book, Aitken does acknowledge, sometimes starkly, Colson's lifelong penchant for dirty deeds. He recounts, for example, a smear job Colson performed in 1960 against a potential Senate challenger to Saltonstall. "It was my job to get [the skeletons] out of the cupboard and into the press -- and I did," he quotes Colson as saying. But when it comes to Watergate, Aitken is indulgent at best. He absolves Colson of green-lighting Nixon's idea of burglarizing the Brookings Institution. He minimizes the scheme to paint George Wallace's would-be assassin as a George McGovern supporter. He shrugs at Colson's hiring of E. Howard Hunt, the former CIA operative turned Watergate burglar, to work for the White House. And he soft-pedals Colson's actions in the administration's campaign against the former Pentagon official and antiwar dissident Daniel Ellsberg -- actions to which Colson pleaded nolo contendere .

Aitken dwells instead on how Colson has "redeemed" himself as the head of Prison Fellowship, an organization he founded to convert prisoners to evangelical Christianity. But about the body's controversial mission (subjecting a literally captive audience to extreme religious proselytizing) Aitken shows no skepticism -- unsurprisingly, perhaps, since he himself now sits on the board of Prison Fellowship International. Nor does Aitken discuss the irony that Colson has gained a national platform less because of his prison work than because of his criminality; while many religious activists with clean records toil away unsolicited by the media, Colson wins attention because op-ed editors and television bookers know that his Watergate infamy will reliably generate buzz.

Rebutting those who decry Colson's religiosity as a public relations ploy, Aitken insists that his subject's faith is genuine and deep. I tend to agree. But so what? Aitken never tackles the key issue -- whether Colson's religiously based work in fact offers redemption, either for the prisoners or for Colson. The devout, after all, behave no more morally than anyone else, and as it turns out, Colson's behavior hasn't entirely changed.

Consider the issue of church-state separation. Under Nixon, Colson tried to lure working-class Catholic Democrats to the Republican Party by funneling federal funds to parochial schools. Little came of the effort, partly because Nixon administration officials considered the constitutional barriers too high. Today, however, President Bush doles out taxpayer monies to groups performing Christian social work under a plan Colson has advocated. While Colson's motives might be less cynical now than they were under Nixon, the project of eroding the church-state wall is essentially the same. And while Colson's current schemes 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.

After their scandals, Colson, Aitken and Nixon all struggled in vain to put their political crimes behind them. They failed because none ever grasped that the true path to redemption would have been to retreat entirely from the public realm -- to forsake the books, the TV shows, the advising of presidents, the fame, the money and the political influence. What each man sought, in fact, was not a private redemption but a public comeback. They were thus fated to remain forever shadowed by their disgrace. ยท

David Greenberg, a professor at Rutgers University, is the author of "Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image." He is working on a biography of Calvin Coolidge.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company