WASHINGTON — On July 6, 1973, as the evidence of President Nixon's criminal involvement in the Watergate scandal was mounting, I interviewed one of the players in that scandal, Charles W. Colson, a top Nixon aide.
Mr. Colson later pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in the Watergate-related Daniel Ellsberg break-in and served seven months in prison for so doing. He had also been indicted for his role in the Watergate coverup. But this charge was dropped after he pleaded guilty on the other charge.
But when I interviewed Colson that day, he was playing the part of an innocent bystander who had "seen signs" of the Watergate coverup effort and added: "I wish now that the first time I had any indication of any White House involvement, I had jumped in with both feet."
Colson was sticking with a story that while the coverup was taking place, the president was not a part of it and "never knew who authorized it."
"I think," he told me, that upcoming testimony at the Ervin Committee hearings "will show that the president always was trying to find the answer to that question."
How wrong Colson was about Nixon. And how dearly he has paid for his association with Nixon during that Watergate period.
Colson's comeback from this terrible stain on his life has been most remarkable. As he has told people, in prison he found the road back to a useful moral, law-abiding life by turning to God and relying on God's guidance. As he began to find hope and direction through religion, he began to encourage other prisoners to move in this same direction. Indeed, he started a prison ministry while still in prison, which later, as he brought others into this work, became the Prison Fellowship Ministries.
And now more than any of the others whose reputations were severely damaged by Watergate Colson has restored his respectability in the eyes of others. Even when he talks about ethics in government, people listen.
Just the other day President Bush said, "There is no capitalism without conscience, there is no wealth without character." A Washington Post editorial said of Bush's comment: "There's no harm in this rhetoric, but it is naive to suppose that business can be regulated by some kind of national honor code."
"Will we ever learn?" Colson wrote in a Washington Post opinion page column. "When I was in the White House serving President Nixon, I knew what the law was. I was trained in it. There were plenty of laws on the books forbidding precisely the kind of abuses into which we rationalized ourselves. If I had ever sat down and thought about it, I would have realized that we were backing into a serious conspiracy that could topple a president. By the time I did realize it and warned the president, it was too late."
Colson points out that the laws existing at that time "could have sent any of us away for 10 years or more." He adds: "What fools we are when we think we can legislate away human immorality.... We certainly need laws, but I stand as living proof that the cure comes not from laws and statutes but from the transforming of the human heart the embracing of a moral code to which conscience is bound."
What a transformation has taken place in Charles Colson! And these certainly are the wise words of someone who has had to learn the hard way.
Upon reading Colson's column I called up one of the most ethical, moral people I have been associated with in public life: George McGovern, the man who gave his all in a valiant effort to make it to the presidency on the pledge that he would end a Vietnam war that should have most Americans now agree been ended. Oh, yes, he lost badly to a Richard Nixon who, of course, brought us Watergate and more war.
Said Senator McGovern to the question about the "lessons" learned from Watergate: "To get responsible government," he said, "you basically have to have good people. I don't think there is a substitute for sound, moral character on the part of a government official. Laws help but that alone is not enough. You can't remedy lack of character by passing more legislation."