Mr. Colson’s reputation as a “dirty tricks artist” overshadowed his achievements as a darkly brilliant political strategist. He helped lay the groundwork for the Nixon landslide of November 1972 by appealing to disgruntled Democrats and blue-collar minority voters.
A self-described “hatchet man” for Nixon, Mr. Colson compiled the notorious “enemies list” of politicians, journalists and activists perceived as threats to the White House. And most fatefully, he helped orchestrate illegal activities to discredit former Pentagon official Daniel Ellsberg, who was suspected of leaking a top-secret history of the Vietnam War to the New York Times and The Washington Post.
It was the targeting of Ellsberg — rather than Mr. Colson’s peripheral involvement in the growing Watergate break-in scandal — that eventually led to his conviction for obstruction of justice. In the midst of this crisis, Mr. Colson said he underwent a profound religious transformation in August 1973.
Acting against the advice of his lawyers, Mr. Colson pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, a step that he depicted as “a price I had to pay to complete the shedding of my old life and to be free to live the new.”
Released on parole in January 1975, after seven months in a minimum-security prison, Mr. Colson became a leading voice in the evangelical movement and an advocate for prison reform.
The need for such work, he said, was drawn from what he called his frightening experience in confinement. Prison, he said, was filled with embittered prisoners who contemplated escape and revenge at every turn.
“He transferred his huge drive, intellect and maniacal energy from the service of Richard Nixon to the service of Jesus Christ,” said his biographer, Jonathan Aitken, a former British government minister who endured a similar journey of political disgrace and personal redemption after a 1999 conviction for perjury.
Mr. Colson’s autobiography, “Born Again,” first published in 1976, sold millions of copies over the years. In 1993, he was awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize, worth more than $1 million, which is given each year to the person who has done the most to advance the cause of religion.
Outwardly, Mr. Colson remained recognizably the same person before and after his conversion. Even toward the end of his life, he retained the same amused expression in his heavily wrinkled face.
His crumpled look, fondness for blazers and striped ties, and talent for incisive repartee gave him the appearance of an overgrown New England prep-school boy, but also masked one of the traits he shared with Nixon: an outsider self-image.