Sometime in 1973, I first heard the name Charles Colson from my father at the dinner table. My dad, who always told me he “hated” President Nixon, told me that night that he also “hated” a man named Charles Colson, who had the title “special counsel to the president.”
He told me about a sign on Colson’s wall in the White House: “When you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.”
About a year later, I think in early 1974, I was astonished to receive a phone call, which began: “Hello, this is Bob Woodward from The Washington Post. Do you have any comment on the fact that you were on one of Nixon’s ‘Enemies Lists’?”
“You’ve got to be kidding. Me? Why was I on Nixon’s Enemies List?”
“We are not sure,” Woodward said. “You were Muskie’s youth coordinator and made a lot of anti-Nixon speeches. Maybe that’s how you got there.” (He was referring to Maine Sen. Edmund S. Muskie, who had been an unsuccessful candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972 and for whom I had worked during his campaign.)
I asked Woodward whether he had any idea who in the Nixon White House had put me on the Enemies List.
“Yeah, we think it was Colson.”
“Do you mean Charles Colson — the guy with the ‘hearts and minds’ sign on the wall?”
“Yeah, that Colson. Would you like to comment?”
“Sure — I am complimented and want to thank Colson for the honor.”
The next day, I read a short article in the Post mentioning that I had been listed on one of the Enemies Lists. It wasn’t long until my phone rang. It was my mom and dad, both yelling, “Mazel tov,” with even more pride and joy, it seemed, than the day of my bar mitzvah.
“We’re so proud of you, son,” my dad said. “You made The List!”
Fast-forward — about 30 years later, I am guessing, probably about 2004.
I was at the dinner traditionally hosted by conservative columnist Cal Thomas, on the evening before the National Prayer Breakfast. Each year, Cal invites friends to join him to hear a born-again Christian give testimony about his or her experience. It’s a moving experience and an honor to be invited.
“There is someone I want you to meet,” Cal told me. “You must come.”
When I arrived, Cal steered me over to a vaguely familiar face.
“Hi, I’m Chuck Colson,” he said, as he stuck his hand out to shake hands. I shook his hand, amazed, and became even more amazed when he said:
“I admired your work for President Clinton — and I had the same title as you, ‘special counsel.’ I’ve wanted for a very long time to say something to you: I am sorry, may God forgive me.”
I looked at him, stunned.
“You know, I’m the guy who put you on the Enemies List — that was wrong, please forgive me.”
I looked into his eyes and I felt a strange and deep peace. It was eerie. I also saw a profound goodness and spirituality.
I thought of my dad, who had passed away in 1996, and who had used the words “hate” and “evil” about this man. My eyes teared up. I wished my dad was alive to hear me say, “Of course I forgive you, Mr. Colson” — and then adding: “And please forgive me and my late dad, for we used to use the word ‘hate’ about you.”
Chuck Colson immediately hugged me, whispering in my ear, “I know your dad is in heaven, and he is smiling right now at the both of us loving God and forgiving each other.”
I learned an important lesson that night: I vowed that I would never use the word “hate” about people in politics with whom I disagreed.
And I knew I would never forget this moment and what Charles Colson had taught me.
Thank you, Chuck.
May your soul rest in peace.
I know it will.
Lanny Davis is a Washington D.C. attorney specializing in legal crisis management, who served as Special Counsel to President Bill Clinton in 1996-98 and served as a member of President Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Board in 2006-07. He currently serves as Special Counsel to Dilworth Paxson. He is the author of the forthcoming book, “Crisis Tales – Five Rules for Handling Scandal in Business, Politics and Life,” to be published by Simon & Schuster.