Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
One person who sat through the world premiere at the Kennedy Center of the "true story of Charles Colson" and his conversion from convict to Christ follower didn't exactly sound "born again."
Charles Colson's mother, a small platinum-haired woman carrying one red rose, said she's always been religious and has always been unswerving in her view of what happened to her son, the former Nixon aide. Colson went to prison for seven months after pleading guilty to obstructing the trial of Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers.
"Chuck's grandparents came to this country with nothing. Do you think they were not proud that their grandson was a helper to the president? That we were not very proud of what he did? I wish he would get up and say, 'I'm proud I was a good Marine and a good son and I would do the same thing for the president today.' I should never want to hear Chuck say I'm sorry.' I taught him as a boy to be loyal to your employer, and he was.Ellsberg was a Communist. I'm proud of what he tried to do to Ellsberg. Someday Richard Nixon will be proclaimed a great president. Watergate? That was all planned to upset Mr. Nixon. I always thought there was a double agent."
Mrs. Colson, who said her nickname is "Dizzy," says someday she will write her own book about her experience, including "having Christmas dinner with murderers in prison."
Nothing makes her more furious than those skeptics who question her son's conversion. "Once I went up in the Sans Souci and I told Mr. Cleverman - Art Buchwald, who always wrote about Chuck as if it were funny - if he wanted to be slapped in the face. I said, I shall follow you to the end of the world if you ever write anything that's a lie about Chucck . . .'" Buchwald shivered, she said.
Charles Colson, on the other hand, was full of forgiveness and spoke constantly of love and brotherhood in Christ and fellowship Sunday night as he moved among the several hundred guests who attended a dinner, a showing of the film "Born Again" and a reception - sans liquor - afterward.
Being born again makes for strange bedfellows: President Carter's sister, Ruth Carter Stapleton: Billy Graham's sister: a Colson "former political enemy" - ex-lowa Sen. Harold Hughes; one-time White House aide Pat Buchanan: singer Anita Bryant and 12 convicts helped by Colson's Prison Fellowship group, were among those attending.
Hughes, who portrayed himself in the movie, prayed in a sonorous stained-glass voice before the movie began asking that God bless it.The film needed all the help it could get, encumbered as it was with an overdose of one-dimensional acting.
The makers of the film pointed out over and over again Sunday night that the proceeds would benefit Colson's Prison Fellowship, and Colson himself stood before the crowd and said that the Lord had supported him in making this film and "what he has called me for, to take the Gospel into every prison in the country." Colson, 47, also said that out in Hollywood when they were casting about for the right people to do the film, "We got down on our knees, asking the Lord's guidance as to what we should do about the film."
Religious commercialization can raise a few eyebrows, even though Colson's royalties are going to the cause. But Hughes has steadfastly felt that Colson was sincere. "All I can say is watch how he lives. I simply listened to what happened and I knew he had a spiritual experience with Christ." Hughes, a former Democratic senator, himself had a similar experience, "that left me no alternative. I didn't like the man politically and would have just as soon it didn't happen. But it did."
At times during the evening, Colson, who used to refer to himself as the "Chief A--kicker" at the White House, was his old cocky self. Pointing out Sens, Lawton Chiles of Florida and Sam Nunn of Georgia, he cracked. "They're both good Democrats. I'd vote for either one if I had a chance. That's not the old Colson, is it?"
He also joked with a reporter about the plaque that had been discovered in his bar at home in the Watergate days: "When you've got 'em by the b-s, their hearts and minds will follow." The former Mr. Tough Guy said, "Do I still have it? I seldom throw anything away - but you wouldn't find it in the same place." Nor, he says, will he serve scotch and soda in his McLean home, as he did in the past. Today, it's strictly tomato juice.
Colson says he has existed on the money he saved from his law practice and on some royalties from his book. "Born Again." on which the movie is based. "You can see I'm eating well," he said, patting his stomach encased in a black tuxedo.
Colson, actually, looked trim. But not nearly as thin as Dean Jones, the relentlessly genial actor who plays him in the film. Jones cracked, "If God can forgive me and Chuck, he can forgive anyone." A veteran of 10 Walt Disney movies, Jones said, "One man came up to me and said, 'How can you play that criminal?' and I just said that Edward G. Robinson made a career out of playing criminals."
Among those in the audience who had nothing but praise for Colson was convict Eddie McGee, who stood before the audience in a three-piece plaid suit and said that his life had been changed 15 days ago when he met Jesus Christ through Colson's Prison Fellowship program. Two other inmates were out of prison for the occasion. Josh Boyd and Eddie Snyder, who were convicted of drug conspiracies. "Chuck Colson is one of the most wonderful people. This is one of the only programs that does any good in prison. Introducing me to Christ is saving my life," said Snyder.
Although Colson's 8 percent royalties go to the prison foundation, any other profits from the movie go back to the investors who put up $3 million for it.
Book publishers and producers dealing solely in religious films have become millionaires, and the religious writing industry had its own best-seller list. Dean Jones said, "Yeah, it's a big business, but you know we commercialize 'Star Wars,' we commercialize Disney. Yeah, people have to pay money to see Disney productions, but they're entertained. If people can entertained and possibly have a transference of the heart, it's worth the money."
The president's sister, faith healer Ruth Carter Stapleton, no stranger to success with her best-selling books, was untroubled by the fact that she had embraced an old Nixonite like Colson. As she headed for the presidential box, wearing a bright red dress, Stapleton said, "Chuck is one of my very best friends. A conversion experience changes a lot of things."
After the showing, Colson stood in a receiving line in the Kennedy Center Atrium as several hundred guests filed past. He hugged some, slapped others on the back, signed copies of his book. No one in this group obviously, had anything but praise for the movie. Anita Bryant said she has been cheered on by Colson in her crusade against homosexual rights laws.
The Anita Bryant Ministries, she said, will soon open centers "to help homosexuals who want to be delivered from that kind of lifestyle." Wearing a diamond fish hook around her neck ("Jesus said to the fishermen, 'Come with me and I will make you fishers of men'") she was surrounded by her own adoring followers. Of the movie she said, "I loved it. I just couldn't stop crying."
Pat Buchanan, who worked for Nixon for 8 1/2 years and was a chief speech writer, felt that the Nixon portrayal was a "caricature" - but praised the movie's "very positive message." There was no doubt in his mind that Colson was a "true believer. You must remember, Colson was a man of great loyalties. He now has just switched those loyalties," said Buchanan. "It's the old story of the convert."