Vivid memories of what my life was like in the midst of the greatest political unheaval in American history have flooded me in recent weeks. The news media have pursued me for comments, reflections, and observations almost as doggedly as they did for fresh news in the days of the unfolding drama.
It is—dubious though commemorating a burglary might seem—the tenth anniversary of what began as a bungled act of political espionage and ended in the unprecedented resignation and disgrace of a U.S. president and his men. But Watergate is more than an event. Few today could recount what happened, when, and to whom. Even fewer could explain why. Yet the term, a permanent addition to the American lexicon, is now used to embrace all manner of political chicanery and high-level misdeeds.
Most reporters of late are looking for fresh tidbits, heretofore undisclosed secrets—like whether Mr. Nixon was really drunk in the evenings as Henry Kissinger said someone told him. John Erlichman’s recently published memoirs, so full of anger and bitterness that I could barely labor through them, have spawned a host of new questions.
The human bunglings and failures of the “Watergate cover-up” add credibility to the biblical account of the Resurrection.
The folks I feel sorriest for in this enterprise are the serious historians. How will they ever manage to sort out all that happened? Since truth is usually stranger than fiction, facts in such an interwoven, intriguing event will probably never be unearthed.
The more thoughtful reporters have wanted to explore the deeper meanings of the constitutional crisis and the fall of the Nixon presidency. What caused it?
That is a good question. Watergate was a historical imperative, the explosion of pent-up frustration and anger in a nation seething with unrest, divided over an ugly war on a distant continent, and a head-to-head confrontation between the executive and legislative branches of government here at home. Something had to give. Watergate was like lancing a boil. It provided a release to the growing pressure of “the imperial presidency,” as Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary described it so well.
Most reporters ask whether or not it could happen again. The naïvete of that question is betrayed by the events of the last decade—government crises of near-Watergate proportions in India, Israel, and West Germany, and right here at home. While the Watergate villains were languishing in prison, some of their successors in power were accepting the lavish favors of a Korean businessman; others were prescribing narcotics with suspicious regularity; still others were accepting bribes from FBI agents dressed as Arab sheiks. Very few reporters seem to have the slightest understanding of the most fundamental truth of Judeo-Christian history: human nature has not changed since the Garden of Eden. Man is a sinner who will go right on sinning unless restrained by grace.
Virtually every reporter has asked me to describe the single most significant, lasting lesson of Watergate. To that ultimate question I have wanted—but have not quite dared—to reply, “Well, of course, it proves that Jesus actually was resurrected from the grave.” Even the most sympathetic reporter would take down the answer, shake his head, and walk away convinced that Colson’s born-again experience was, as one cynical columnist wrote about 10 years ago, something akin to a nervous breakdown.
But as I reflect on the events as they unfolded, what appears on the surface to be an unlikely connection becomes a fundamental truth that my Christian brothers and sisters will understand.
It was a humid Saturday, June 17, 1972. The President was in Florida. I took an infrequent afternoon off to be with my family around our swimming pool in suburban McLean, Virginia. The tranquility of the afternoon was disturbed only by a call on my special White House phone from John Ehrlichman. He asked if I knew the whereabouts of one Howard Hunt, a minor functionary I had recommended almost a year earlier for some investigative work on government leaks. Contrary to the volumes that have been written, that was the first inkling I had of a break-in at the Democratic National Committee. (I am convinced Nixon knew nothing beforehand, nor did Ehrlichman, and probably not Haldeman.)
Though we subsequently learned from tapes that the President did attempt in the days immediately thereafter to detour the FBI investigation (the famous “smoking gun” tape that brought down the final curtain), he and most of the rest of us saw the whole Watergate affair at first as a political brouhaha. That meant that under the usual rules of political combat, our opponents would try to make the most of it while we would make the least of it. Though some underlings at the political committee had been caught trying to bug the Democratic headquarters—which was technically burglary under D.C. law—it wasn’t really anything to get too excited about. It certainly had gone on before, and was, I recall remarking at the time, like trying to steal the other team’s signals out of their huddle.
Nothing more seemed at stake than surviving the political brick throwing through the November election. After that, the caper would be forgotten, someone would get fined, and whoever had ordered the break-in (we honestly did not know) would apologize and forfeit any chance for a plum position in the second term. That would be it.
It was not until January 1973 that I had any real concerns. A law partner skilled in criminal law began warning me that the White House itself could be drawn into what might be criminal activity. From reading the memoirs of the others, only John Dean acknowledges any apprehension before that time. He also says he shared his concerns with no one. You may wonder how so many lawyers—Ehrlichman, Mitchell, Colson, Krogh, Dean, Nixon, to mention but a few—could have been so oblivious to what later became so obvious.
Well, first, by definition, a conspiracy is the sum total of a lot of bits and pieces; the individuals involved often see only their own bits and pieces.
Second, and most important—though it is a remarkable commentary on the American judicial system—the only exposure to criminal law that 98 percent of all lawyers have is one course in law school and an occasional criminal case assigned by a court, which is most often quickly settled out of court by plea bargain. The closest most lawyers come to the high drama of courtroom confrontation is watching Perry Mason on late-night television. Incredible though it sounds, my first experience with the obstruction of justice statutes was when I was prosecuted—and sent to prison—under them.
No one, with the possible exception of John Dean, even began to notice that a criminal cover-up was under way until the early weeks of 1973. The first serious discussion of criminal implications did not take place until March 21, the fateful day that John Dean first warned Mr. Nixon of the “cancer on the Presidency.” Thereafter, as we know from the tapes, the conversation got thick and heavy—talk of perjury, stonewalling, obstruction of justice—the kind of stuff that makes grown men get sweaty palms. As a matter of legal interpretation, the cover-up conspiracy dated back to June, but for all practical purposes it was not really recognized as such by the major participants until the following March 21.
Exactly one week later, John Dean contacted a criminal lawyer for advice about his own complicity, retaining him, as Dean put it in his memoirs with refreshing candor, to save his own skin. On April 8, Dean and his lawyer began negotiations with the federal prosecutors, attempting to bargain his testimony for immunity from prosecution.
Within days, Jeb Magruder followed. In fact, for a while the prosecutors couldn’t handle the procession of people who wanted to see them. My lawyers advised the U.S. attorney that I would be available to testify, but the original prosecutors believed I was not directly involved and didn’t bother to put me before the grand jury.
Dean’s meeting with the prosecutors signaled, for all practical purposes, the end of the cover-up. Once the criminal investigation of the White House had begun, the die was cast; it was only a matter of time before Mr. Nixon’s presidency would be ended.
So, though it is one of the least likely understood facts about Watergate, the serious cover-up—the part everyone knew or should have known was criminal—lasted successfully only weeks, perhaps a month or two by the most generous interpretation.
With the Presidency of the United States at stake, a small band of hand-picked loyalists, numbering no more than 10, could not contain a lie. It was not that the pressure was so great. Though at that point there had been serious moral failures, perjury committed, and hush money paid, the risk was dreadful embarrassment, or at worst maybe prison. On the other side of the scales was the concern to keep in office a man for whom 61 percent of the American people had just voted—a man most of us believed in so passionately that we had sacrificed much in serving him. Yet, even with the fate of the most powerful man in the world involved, the instinct for self-preservation was so overwhelming that one by one the conspirators deserted their compatriots. With the world’s power at stake, a cover-up was successful only for a matter of weeks.
What does all this have to do with the Resurrection? Simply this:
Modern criticism of historic Christology boils down to three propositions. First, the disciples and scribes were simply mistaken. Second, the 11 disciples merely repeated and perpetuated myths that have been continued without question until modern times. Third, there was a “Passover plot”; the 11 disciples spirited the body of Christ out of the tomb, disposed of it neatly and forever, and then to their dying breath maintained a conspiritorial silence.
There is little chance of logically defending the first option. A man being raised from the dead is, after all, a rather mind-boggling event—not the kind of thing people are likely to be vague or indecisive about. According to the Scriptures, Jesus appeared to 500 others, then personally and dramatically confronted one of their chief persecutors. His disciples were so staggered by his reappearance that one even wanted to finger the wound in his side as tangible proof. A simple error in perception is belied by the very nature of the event, the dogmatic assertions of all witnesses and subsequent history.
But could it have been a myth? The possibility is unlikely. It assumes the disciples all knew their faith was mythology. Paul, who had an intimate association with the original disciples, shatters the mythology theory when he urges that if Jesus were not actually resurrected, Christianity is a fraud. Nothing in his writings remotely suggests a mythological perspective—and people do not allow themselves to be beheaded for myths. On that basis, the myth theory is logically untenable.
To thus assail the deity of Christ on the historicity of the Resurrection, one ultimately has to conclude—though no one likes to come right out and say it in so many words—that there was a conspiracy of silence perpetrated by 11, maybe up to 500, men. To subscribe to this argument, one must be ready to believe that each disciple was willing to be ostracized by friends and family, live day by day under fear of death, face time in jail and prison, to be penniless, hungry, and beaten within an inch of his life, then ultimately to die without ever once renouncing that Jesus was Lord and had risen from the dead.
That is why the Watergate experience is so instructive. If John Dean was so panic stricken—not by the prospect of being beaten or executed, but by a prison term—one can only speculate about the emotions of the 11 disciples. They were powerless, abandoned by their leader, homeless in a conquered land, and yet clinging to this unbelievable and enormously offensive story that their leader had risen from the dead.
The Watergate cover-up reveals, I think, the true nature of man. In no one’s memoirs is there a suggestion that anyone went to the prosecutor out of such noble motives as putting the Constitution above the President, or bringing offenders to justice, or out of moral indignation. Instead, there are the pathetic recitations of the frailty of even those political zealots who achieve the pinnacle of power—who, left to their own devices, save their own necks, even at the cost of someone else’s.
Considering that, is it really plausible that the “myth” of the diety of Christ and his resurrection could have survived the violent persecution of the apostles, the scrutiny of the early church councils, the attempted purge of the first-century believers? Is it not likely that just one of the apostles would have renounced Christ before being beheaded or stoned? Is it not likely that some “smoking gun” document might have been produced, uncovering a “Passover plot”? Surely someone, in the light of the controversy that was created (which would make Watergate publicity look like a minor news story), would have made a deal with the authorities. Or is it not likely that someone would have come forward to say that an apostle confided in him before his death that it was all a plot to deceive the world for some terrible warped purpose—even for the noble motive of enshrining Christ’s teachings?
No, the fact is that man in his normal state can be made to renounce his beliefs just as readily as Peter renounced Jesus before the resurrection. But as the same Peter discovered after the resurrection, there is a power beyond man that causes us to forsake all—which cannot be renounced because it is the power of the Creator God of heaven and earth who revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ.
Nothing less than a witness so awesomely powerful as the resurrected Christ appearing to the 11 apostles and Paul could cause those men to maintain to their dying whispers that Jesus is Lord. Take it from one who was inside the Watergate web looking out, and who saw firsthand how vulnerable a cover-up is: a “Passover plot” or the perpetration of mythology is not only implausible, it is impossible. Watergate’s greatest lesson should be its testimony of the frailty of man. The inefficacy of a bungled burglary cover-up is indirectly a powerful witness to Christ’s resurrection from the dead.
Charles W. Colson is president of Prison Fellowship, Washington, D.C. He was special counsel to former President Richard Nixon, and is the author of Born Again and Life Sentence (Chosen, 1975, 1979).
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