Paul Greenberg

Charles Colson died the other day at 80, a respected and even revered evangelist in the mold of Billy Graham.

By the time of his death, he may have been the country's leading prison reformer, too, working to change men rather than just punish them.

The worldwide mission he founded and directed -- Prison Fellowship -- continues to inspire.

He set out to make prisons penitentiaries in the true sense--a place for penitence. And rebirth.

That was Charles Colson.

There was also a Charles Colson in an earlier life. That Charles Colson had died and been born again circa 1974-76, when he would enter prison and leave it a new man.

Chuck Colson arrived at the minimum-security federal prison on the grounds of Maxwell Air Base in Montgomery, Ala., via the White House, where he had been not just a member but a leader of the Nixon administration and gang. He'd been convicted, as Richard Nixon should have been, of obstruction of justice.

No doubt about it, Chuck Colson could obstruct with the best of them, or rather the worst. That connoisseur-in-chief of dirty tricks, Richard Mountebank Nixon himself, gave him the highest recommendation in his presidential memoirs:

Mr. Colson, the former president wrote, was his "political point man" for "imaginative dirty tricks." Arriving at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue an ambitious young lawyer, he was determined to show that his tricks were the dirtiest of all, and he did not disappoint his boss.

Whether he was leaking confidential FBI files or compiling Mr. Nixon's infamous enemies' list, Chuck Colson soon became a favorite of that president's. "When I complained to Colson," Richard Nixon recalled, "something would be done. I was rarely disappointed."

In the best break of his life -- and the lives of so many whose lives he helped redeem -- Chuck Colson would be found out, indicted, convicted and sentenced to one-to-three for obstruction. It was while awaiting sentencing that a friend slipped him a copy of C.S. Lewis' "Mere Christianity," which he credited with opening his eyes. He would serve seven months of his sentence and leave proclaiming the Gospel.

When he announced the usual prison conversion, and his plans to start a prison ministry, the reaction among us usual skeptics, aka newspapermen, was that it was all a front, a way to get out of the joint and make a good thing of having gone bad.

But day by day and eventually year by year and decade after decade, Charles Colson proved us wrong.

The only force Colson's ministry employed was soul force, and it proved enough, more than enough. It seems the Spirit exercises a compulsion of its own.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.