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Colson’s Christian turn

Reading Rich Lowry’s Easter column paying tribute to Charles Colson — “When redemption is real” — brought back warm memories of my interviews with Colson, Colson biographer Jonathan Aitken, and Colson’s Prison Fellowship successor Mark Earley back in 2005. A Washington Post Book World review of Aitken’s biography of Colson by Rutgers University Professor David Greenberg was the occasion of my conversations with Colson and the others.

Greenberg had slimed Colson in the course of his review, which alludes to Colson’s service in the Nixon administration with the headline “Tricky Chuck.” Here is Greenberg sliming Colson in his review of Aitken’s biography, still sitting out there for anyone to read on the Internet as originally published by the Post:

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.

If you actually read Aitken’s book, which I seriously doubt Greenberg did, you would know that Greenberg’s disparagement of Colson for lining his coffers with government money or enriching himself through his ministry is a lie. Aitken goes out of his way in the book to document Colson’s sacrifice of riches he could rightly have claimed as his own — such as the royalties from his multimillion selling memoir — for the benefit of his prison ministry.

I interviewed Colson, Aitken and Earley about Greenberg’s libel of Colson in the review. At one point I caught up with Colson while he was shopping for groceries with his autistic grandson in Florida. Having the opportunity to talk to a guy who served hard time with Jeb Magruder for a (highly questionable) crime to which he had pleaded guilty, I asked him if he ever found out what Nixon’s minions were looking for in the Watergate. He said that he had wondered the same thing himself and that he had asked Magruder that at one point in prison. What did he say? “He didn’t say anything; he just turned red,” Colson said. Drat!

I wrote about Greenberg’s false and defamatory review in the Weekly Standard column “Wielding the hatchet.” With the kind permission of the Standard, we also posted the column on Power Line as “Book World’s dirty trick.”

When the Post got around to publishing Mark Earley’s letter taking issue with Greenberg, I took a close look at Greenberg’s mealymouthed response in “Professor Greenberg regrets.” Long story short: Greenberg still owes Colson an apology that he can’t bring himself to offer, and I wanted to take the occasion of Rich Lowry’s terrific column to tack on this addendum.

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