Over those next months the Watergate scandal deepened. Patty and I would find ourselves waking up every morning and looking out at the driveway of our home and there it was filled with camera crews. Called before grand juries and investigating committees. It became a very ugly time in America. But all through that period every time I was with my friend Tom Phillips from Arathion, he was different. He was kind. He was civil and really cared about me as a person. So one night I went back to visit in his home in the summer of 1973. I said, “Tom you simply have to tell me what’s happened to you. Why you’re so different. What is this business about Jesus Christ?” Then he told me the most amazing story. How he too had started out with nothing in the world and had risen to a position of power. How he was the head of this huge corporation, beautiful home, wonderful kids all in the best schools, Mercedes in the driveway. He had everything a person could want and yet he was feeling empty.
He told me about looking out at night at the stars and the planets and the galaxies, all in perfect harmony and perfect order. He knew as a scientist that life on this planet can not be some sort of cosmic accident. He began a search for God. He began to read about Eastern religion. He began to read about philosophy. And finally he was in New York on business and picked up a newspaper and saw that Billy Graham was there preaching at Madison Square Garden. He’d never heard Billy Graham but he went down and took a seat at one of the upper stands at Madison Square Garden and heard Billy Graham speak on who Jesus Christ really is. No ancient historical figure but the living God who rose from the dead and who lives today and who knocks on the door of our life and asks to come in. My friend Tom Phillips, who had one of the largest companies in America, sitting in one of the upper stands that night at Madison Square Garden, made his way down in the crowd and stood before Billy Graham and gave his life to Christ. He came out afterwards and he saw the stars in the sky and every thing about his life began to change. The hole inside began to fill up and relationships with his family began to change and his attitude towards his business began to change.
When he told me this wonderful moving story he read to me from a wonderful little book I recommend every opportunity I have. It’s a book entitled Mere Christianity written by one of the great intellectual giants of the twentieth century, oxford scholar, C.S. Lewis. One chapter in that little book, that wonderful little paperback book, that my friend read to me, is called the great vice, pride. That which we always see in everybody else and never see in ourselves. A proud man is always walking around in life looking down on other people and other things and when you’re looking down you don’t see something above yourself, a measurably, superior God. C.S. Lewis didn’t know it when he wrote those words back in the forties but he was writing them for Chuck Colson. I sat listening to my friend that night realizing that pride had driven me all those years. I thought I was looking for security. I thought I was looking for power and influence because I wanted to take care of my family and I was idealistic about service in government but I was really being driven by my own pride.
Well my friend wanted to pray with me that night, much like, in a few minutes, I will invite you to pray with me, but I didn’t do it. I was too proud. Friend of the president, big time lawyer in Washington D.C. He wanted to pray sitting in his living room. I’d never done anything like that so I said, “No, thank you.” I took that little book, Mere Christianity, that he gave to me while Patty and I headed off for a vacation on the coast to get away for a week from Watergate and from all of the pressures. I left my friend that evening and I have to tell you that I was known as the toughest of Nixon tough guys. The White House hatchet man, I was called in the newspapers, ex-marine captain. I found that evening that I couldn’t drive the automobile out of the driveway of my friend’s house because I couldn’t get the keys into the ignition. I was crying too hard. Something I would never do. I sat there for a long time in that driveway thinking about my life, thinking about what he had told me about Jesus and wanting more than anything else in the world to know God and be at peace with Him. I cried out that night, I’m not even sure of the words, just take me God, take me the way I am.
I sat in that car for a long time that evening and the next morning I was sure when I woke up I would feel embarrassed. I didn’t. I felt a wonderful, wonderful, sense of peace. Well, shortly after that, I went back to Washington DC and was caught attending prayer breakfast at the White House. If you remember anything about my reputation at the time you would understand completely the reaction of the Washington press core when they discovered that Chuck Colson, of all people, was attending a prayer breakfast. I mean there was hilarity in the press room in the White House, with reporters patting each other on the back, throwing there newspapers, throwing their papers in the air. I kept the cartoonist of the United States fed and clothed for one full month. The cartoons were all the same. Chuck Colson kneeling in front of the White House with a big sign that said, “Repent” and Nixon looking out saying, “Help, call Billy Graham, Colson’s got religion.” Stories went all over the world and it was network coverage on television. Over the next months I realized that my new found Christian faith was more on trial than anything that I’d done at Watergate.
I walked in one day to the prosecutors and told them I couldn’t plead guilty to what they’d charged me with, but I was guilty of other things, and here was one of them, and if they wanted to charge me I would plead guilty. I can tell you that if you’re ever in that circumstance the prosecutors are amazingly obliging under those circumstances. I received a one to three year sentence to prison. I have to tell you that it was in prison that I learned the two greatest lessons of my life.
I’d gone into politics. I’d gone into government to sit at the right hand of the president of the United States because I was idealistic. I wanted to change government. I wanted the power to be able to bring to bear my own conservative political convictions. The amazing thing is that as I look back we really hadn’t change that much. Every day the limousine would drive me in and there were big briefing papers in the back seat that I’d have to read, and go through the gates of the White House, and the guards would salute. I’d go up to the second floor of the West wing of the white house where the twelve senior aids of the President of the United States would gather every morning at 8:00 and the same thing would happen every single day.
Henry Kissinger would be the last fellow to come in and he’d come in with a worried dour look on his face with big briefing books under his arms and he’d begin the meeting the same way everyday. Foreign policy was always top of the agenda. He’d say, “Mr. President, the decision we are going to make today is going to change the whole future course of human history.” I mean everyday, five days a week, 52 weeks out of the year. I look back on it and realize we didn’t change anything. Oh sure, how we dealt with the newspapers, or how we dealt with the Congress, but not how people really lived. Not where real change takes place.
It was in prison where I discovered where the real power was. In prison I was part of a little prayer group. The terrible thing for me about prison was not so much the physical depravation. I’d been in the marines. I’d lived in just about everything. You can get used to that. You can get used to just about everything but I could never get used to men lying on their bunks staring into the emptiness. Nothing to do, no place to go, nobody caring about them. Their bodies atrophying, their souls literally corroded.
We formed a little prayer group. There was seven of us. There were three blacks, four whites, two convicted dope pushers, a car thief, a stock swindler, and the former special counsel for the President of the United States down on our knees at night, praying and studying our Bibles together. In the little room where we used to meet to pray there were men who were lying on their bunks literally corpses. I can see why prisons don’t work. They don’t rehabilitate. They can’t. Nobody cares about those people inside. There’s nothing that’s going to change them. But we would see them come in and we would talk to them and they would ask us what it was we were doing. We would tell them what it meant to repent of their sins, not the crime that got them into prison, usually that’s the least of their sins, but what it meant to really know Jesus Christ. To turn their lives around, to be transformed. We’d see those men give their lives to Christ and the next day, no more shuffling and walking around the prison yard like this. They were up with their heads up transformed by the power of the living God. I saw in the White House, Washington DC where people think the power is, it is not. I saw in prison where people were powerless. The only power that really matters was when you change the human heart. You do that through Jesus Christ the living God.
I also discovered something else, the second most important lesson of my life. You know all those years that I had striven to get to the top. Success, power, achievement, money , fame, all of those things, I found them empty. Meaningless. But in prison with all of those things gone I found the only identity and security and meaning a person has and that’s when you’re at peace with God. That’s when you know him personally. You know who you are and why you’re here and where you’re going. And then you find real meaning and real identity and real purpose and real security. I so identify with Alexander Scholsenizen. He’s one of my great heroes. Scholsenizen, you may remember was in imprisoned in the Soviet Union in the Gulag for 10 years and from the Gulag he wrote these words, I think the most memorable words written in the twentieth century. He said, “Bless you prison, bless you for being in my life, for there lying on the rotting prison straw I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity, as we are made to believe but the maturing of the soul.
The maturing of the soul, the object of life. I can easily say to Mike Wallace and any one else, “Yes, thank God for Watergate. Twenty years ago people scoffed and they laughed and they ridiculed me when I made my profession of faith and I can understand it. I can only tell you from the bottom of my heart, twenty years later, I am more convinced of the reality of Jesus Christ than I am of my own reality. My faith is deeper today and more certain today than ever before. Hasn’t always been easy. I went through life threatening surgery once. Thought, as a matter of fact, that I was dying, and not to be overly maudlin, I can remember thinking, lying in the hospital bed with nurses running in and out and they called my family, that if I step over that line, I know for a certainty I will see Jesus. I wondered how anybody can ever go through life without knowing that for sure.