When Ronald Reagan said the only thing on earth enjoying eternal life is a government program, he forgot about Deep Throat. The late-spring exposure of former FBI deputy director Mark Felt as the long-secret Watergate source revived this unending political drama: movies were being produced, books published, and Watergate revisited on talk shows.

As one of the few Watergate survivors, I appeared on dozens of programs. "Is Mark Felt a hero?" I was repeatedly asked. My answer was emphatically No. He broke the law to pursue his (presumably) noble objective of bringing down a corrupt administration. But he didn't need to: Instead of sneaking around at night giving highly classified FBI information to reporters, he could have confronted the President, or, if the President refused, gone to Congress or held a press conference.

Following the interviews, I received an avalanche of angry mail. Of course Felt was a hero, my correspondents insisted, as did all but one of the television interviewers. In the rush to canonize Felt, no one asked if he did the right thing. Did the end justify the means?

I understand why Felt wanted to stop Watergate. In The Good Life, I confess I should have acted to stop the spreading scandal. One night, when, in my presence, Nixon ordered Haldeman to get a team in place for break-ins, I should have spoken up: "No, Mr. President, you can't do that." But I rationalized: We were at war, Marine classmates of mine were in combat, and the Cold War hung in the balance. Maybe the President had to take extreme steps.

I now realize that we humans have an infinite capacity for self-justification: "The heart is deceitful above all things." So knowing what was right, I did what was wrong, and justified myself in the process. I employed wrong means for what I perceived to be good ends, and I was sentenced to prison (ironically, for giving one FBI file to a reporter).

Today, I'm less concerned about how history judges Felt or Nixon than I am about the message we are sending this generation. For 30 years, I've seen the ravages of relativism in the vacant stares of the millions of teenagers we've jammed into prison. Tell them now that one of the most enduring Western ethical standards no longer applies, and we shouldn't be surprised if their numbers swell and savagery increases.

If we teach them that the end justifies the means, almost anything up to and including the Holocaust can be justified. As with any principle, there are exceptions, of course—as Corrie ten Boom lied to German soldiers about hiding Jews. Churchill said sometimes the truth is so precious that it must be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies. In wartime, there may be no choice.

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But the question we should be asking regarding Mark Felt is whether he had no other recourse than to break the law. The answer is clearly No. (Those who accuse me of rewriting history—who say that Felt could not possibly have confronted the President—forget that I worked in the inner sanctum of the White House; I know if Felt had spoken out, Nixon would have had to straighten out the mess or see his presidency fall a year earlier.)

I assured interviewers I have no desire to revise history. I of all people am thankful for Watergate and prison. Look what blessings God has brought forth from that tragedy. But for the culture at large, what is the scandal's lasting legacy? Not legal reforms—they've all been repealed. Not the end of government scandals—we've had many more since. What a cruel twist of history it would be if the final Watergate legacy was the revival of Machiavellian philosophy—the idea that one can do whatever it takes to gain his ends.

Even the Watergate prosecutors seem now to have changed sides. During a CNN interview with Wolf Blitzer, I asked the other guest, former Watergate prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste, whether he still believed the ends don't justify the means, as he said when he prosecuted me. "Here," he said, "I think the lesson is that the perfect is the enemy of the good. Mark Felt didn't do it perfectly, but it was a good thing that that information came out."

In only three decades, we have erased the greatest moral lesson of that scandal—that no one is above the law—and replaced it with the Machiavellian lesson that anything goes.

We'd better start building more prisons.

Related Elsewhere:

We interviewed Colson about his response to the identity of "Deep Throat."

We recently reviewed a new biography of Colson and interviewed his biographer.

Recent Charles Colson columns for Christianity Today include:

Verdict that Demands Evidence | It is Darwinists, not Christians, who are stonewalling the facts. (March 28, 2005)
The Moral Home Front | America's increasing decadence is giving aid and comfort to Muslim terrorists. (Sept. 23, 04)
Reclaiming Occupied Territory | The Great Commission and the cultural commission are not in competition. (July 21, 2004)
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Societal Suicide | Legalizing gay marriage will lead to more family breakdown and crime. (May 24, 2004)
Evangelical Drift | Outsiders say we're the status quo. Our call is to prove them wrong. (March 29, 2004)
Confronting Moral Horror | It's a witness even the most jaded find impressive. (Feb. 04, 2004)
The Postmodern Crackup | From soccer moms to college campuses, signs of the end. (Dec. 09, 2003)
Sowing Confusion | One small ruling for Texas; one giant leap into a cultural abyss. (Oct. 03, 2003)
Being Here | Why we should sink our roots in the places we call home. (July, 28, 2003)
Beyond Condoms | To alleviate AIDS, we must sharpen our moral vision. (June 10, 2003)
Taming Beasts | Raising the moral status of dogs has created a breed of snarling, dangerous humans. (April 3, 2003)
Faith vs. Statistics | Beware of doing ethics by crunching numbers. (Jan. 28, 2003)
Just War in Iraq | Sometimes going to war is the charitable thing to do. (Dec. 10, 2002)
A Clan of One's Own | Hacking through the jungle of identity politics. (Oct. 9, 2002)
Undaunted | Bioethics challenges are huge. But so is God. (July 31, 2002)
The Wages of Secularism | New laws won't prevent another Enron. (June 4, 2002)
More Doctrine, Not Less | We need to proclaim truth to a truth-impaired generation. (April 15, 2001)
Post-Truth Society | The recent trend of lying is no accident. (March 4, 2002)

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Charles Colson
Charles Colson was the founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, an outreach to convicts, victims of crime, and justice officers. Colson, who converted to Christianity before he was indicted on Watergate-related charges, became one of evangelicalism's most influential voices. His books included Born Again and How Now Shall We Live? A Christianity Today columnist since 1985, Colson died in 2012.
Previous Charles Colson Columns:

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