Reading 'Born Again' in Jail
I’ve spent the last year or so in a federal lock-up awaiting trial on charges that have been duly analyzed elsewhere. Long story short: I’m facing decades in prison. This is inconvenient in some respects, but there are perks. Had I not been imprisoned, I probably never would have gotten around to reading the book that’s been a beloved staple of the US Corrections System since it was first published in 1975: Born Again, by Nixon aide Chuck Colson, who famously found Jesus before his brief incarceration on Watergate-related offenses. Christianity is popular among inmates—almost as popular as crime—and Born Again has plenty of both. As for me, I’ve always fancied myself an aficionado of flailing, nonsensical political prose, which is why I once read a whole book by William Bennett. Colson’s volume didn’t just scratch my itch; it taught me a great deal about American civic life in the 60s and 70s, to boot. I’d like to pass on some of what I learned, even if most of it is terribly inaccurate.
The introduction to Born Again, added after the wild success of its first few printings, is largely given over to explaining that Colson didn’t mean to make the great deal of money off of it that he was making at the time. “I had received lucrative offers to write political memoirs, but I felt compelled to tell people the simple story of what God had done in my life... I had no idea there even was a Christian publishing industry.” But, oops, it turns out there is, and so Colson accidentally made a whole lot of money anyway.
“Watergate has raised so many questions,” Colson notes, but we are only confronted with one: “Can humanism ever be the answer for our society?” This, seriously, is the most central question that occurs to Colson in the context of Watergate, with the Nixon Administration somehow representing humanism. And of course, the answer is no, as Colson makes clear. “There is an almost sanctified notion that man can do anything if he puts his will to it.” If the humanists could only see how badly Colson fucked up his chance to become a respected power broker of a dying republic, they might have the decency to stop almost sanctifying such delirious notions. “I no longer believe I am master of my destiny. I need God; I need friends with whom I can honestly share my failures and feelings of inadequacy.” Such inadequacy is very much on display in that this is the best Colson can come up with even after a year of sitting around in prison trying to figure out how to set up humanism to take the fall for a bunch of shit that he and his conservative friends did.
After a few more feints at exposition, the introduction runs its course, which is probably for the best. The first chapter is entitled “Something Wrong,” perhaps in reference to the grammar, usage, and punctuation mistakes that interlace the book, all of which we must presumably blame on humanism. The narrative begins at a postelection “Victory Party,” which of course is capitalized because you always capitalize parties. Colson relates how empty this 1972 “Victory Party” felt compared to the more emotionally fulfilling 1968 “Victory Party” wherein everyone had felt more, uh, Victorious. Worse, someone invited the world’s worst party guest. “Then we were cornered by Senator Bob Dole, the Republican national chairman. Angrily he jabbed his finger at me. ‘The President didn’t even mention the committee in his speech!’” The unease went deeper than just the soul-crushing presence of Dole. The real problem was, of course, humanism, and the false sense of pride it confers among its devotees. “In fact, pride was at the heart of the Nixon presidency in its reach for historical greatness.” In which case, the Ford administration must have been more to Colson’s taste. But hark! We’re transitioning into a flashback! “And pride had been at the heart of my own life, too, as far back as I could remember.” Seamless.
“It was a sunny day in early June 1949 for graduation ceremonies at Brown and Nichols, a small private school in Cambridge,” Colson relates, really bringing the scene to life for us. And having attended his precious Cambridge private high school, and then having received a scholarship from Harvard, what do you suppose Colson does? You will never guess. He begins to whine. You see, there exists an informal class of people known as the Boston Brahmins who hold no special rights or ancestral privileges but who nonetheless apparently run Boston, Harvard, and probably the whole world, and Colson was never invited to play their WASPy reindeer games, such as, I suppose, croquet. “We were neither the new ethnics—Italians, Irish Catholics just seizing political power in the wards of Boston—nor old stock. ‘Swamp Yankees,’ we were called. Acceptance was what we were denied – and what we most fervently sought.” Isn’t that a sad fucking story? Martin Luther Honkey over here had a real rough childhood, it seems, having presumably been forced to use the Swamp Yankee water fountains instead of those marked “Brahmin Only” and otherwise having a rough time of it while all the blue-blooded dagoes divided the city up among themselves, leaving nothing for Generic White People, Cursed Among Men. As much of a nightmare as postwar Massachusetts must have been, Colson X is subjected to an indignity well beyond the imaginary ones described thus far when the Brahmin overlords send one of their number down from the pyramid of skulls atop which they reign and offer our much put-upon Untouchable that full scholarship to Harvard. And the dean, damn him, actually has the nerve to “pause a moment for me to express my elation” instead of begging him to forgive the Brahmin Reich its crimes against his people and accept their humble gift. Mumia Colson triumphantly turns down the fork-tongued representative of the “Eastern intellectualism” that Colson associates with Harvard. Then he opts to attend Brown, which I suppose is not representative of any such thing.
This degenerate nonsense continues for several more chapters until we are finally introduced to a sympathetic character, Richard Nixon, whom the American people had decided would make a fine president. If only they’d known what Colson himself would soon begin to suspect—that the presidency itself had lately become so corrupted that even Nixon would find his democratic instincts compromised by mere possession of the office. “The era of the ‘Imperial’ Presidency came to full flower with John F. Kennedy, who trusted only family and longtime Camelot worshippers around him,” Colson explains, somewhat bizarrely. We get a better sense of what Colson, in his innocence, does and does not consider aspects of such imperial presidencies in the course of an anecdote that is intended, in a strange combination, as both amusing slice-of-White-House-life vignette as well as cautionary tale on the dangers of creeping dictatorship. You see, one evening, Nixon decides that he’d like to go over to the Kennedy Center and listen to music. Alas, the staff that handles Nixon’s little outings has already gone home, so it falls to Colson and a couple of secretaries and poor George Schultz to figure out if it’s even open, and if a certain composer that Nixon likes is conducting, and if not then what else might be going down—and all of this is a huge comic ordeal involving telephone calls and inductive reasoning because that’s how these things were done back before the internet. Finally, Colson figures out that the Marine Band is playing tonight, and of course this sounds great to Nixon the ofay. So now our hapless hero Colson has to arrange the logistics entailed in getting Nixon over there and making sure that the Marine Band plays “Hail to the Chief” when the president comes out on the balcony. It’s a hell of a story, right up there with Lonesome Dove, but it also has an important lesson to impart. Nixon, you see, never seems to notice how much trouble this last-minute whim of his is causing everyone. To wit: “Over the years a system of total and unquestioning loyalty to the Presidents had grown up,” he explains at this point, and not a chapter ago when Nixon ordered the secret bombing of Cambodia and got it.
What Colson lacks in perspective he makes up for in his willingness to jot down hilarious and telling Nixonisms. “The leaks, the leaks; that’s what we’ve got to stop at any cost. Do you hear me, Henry?” the president mutters to Kissinger, who of course turned out to be a prolific leaker himself, at least when it came to press fodder that could make him look good at the president’s expense. We are also reminded that Nixon was ahead of his time. Back then, his malevolent and obsessive quest to stem “the leaks, the leaks” at “any cost” was viewed as a sort of psychic illness; today, both the sentiment and the extralegal pursuit of leakers that followed is considered downright presidential. “We might as well turn it all over to the Soviets and get it over with,” mutters this pioneer among presidents, anticipating the drama queen logic that today’s national security state now evokes against Wikileaks and certain other parties. “These leaks”—most notably the ongoing publication of the Pentagon Papers—“are slowly and systematically destroying us.” This latest crisis was, of course, the work of dastardly Pentagon analyst Daniel Ellsberg, “who by his own admission once experimented with LSD,” Colson reminds us with exquisite nastiness. “The press hailed him as a courageous champion of the ‘public’s right to know,’” a term which Colson presents in scare quotes to indicate that this is a silly and alien concept that does not accord with American life—except, presumably, when it comes to Ellsberg’s medical records, which the administration helpfully dumped. “I want the truth about him known,” Nixon tells Colson, who is then tasked with “exposing” Ellsberg. Then Colson’s fellow humanists G. Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt break into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office to get those medical records. “Our fortress mentality plunged us across the moral divide,” past secret bombings and into the realm of actual burglary. “Other excesses came, as the shadowy form of the demon which would take down the Thirty-Seventh President of the United States was now taking shape like a genie drifting out of a bottle,” says Colson, who must have stolen some acid from Ellsberg, too.
Soon Nixon is reelected. Kissinger splits his time between leaking to the New York Times and trying to figure out who else is leaking to the New York Times. The war comes to an end, but not before putting further strain on Nixon and Kissinger’s winning dynamic. “In its ‘Last Hurrah,’” Colson observes, “Vietnam managed to poison the relationship between these two unusually gifted men, a relationship which had led to some of the most spectacular American foreign policy achievements in decades.” I hope the Vietnamese feel bad about this.
Later Colson is sent to Russia to finesse the party brass on some minor policy issue or another. At a press conference there, an impertinent US reporter asks him about the budding Watergate scandal. By contrast, “There had not been a single word about the scandal in the Soviet press and the Soviet officials who were aware of it were perplexed; wiretapping and bugging is a way of life in their country,” he noted. Of course, this was way back in the halcyon days when the US could be contrasted with totalitarian regimes on matters of surveillance. What an age of innocence it was, the Watergate era. Anyway, it was too depressing to read on after this point. Also I understand that Colson is dead now, which is probably for the best.
Barrett Brown is an American author and journalist awaiting trial on charges related to his research on US government intelligence contractors. For more information on his case, visit freebarrettbrown.org.
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