The grand inquisitor

April 29, 1994|By Charles Colson

I SPENT three and a half years with President Nixon, for much of the time in and out of his office several times a day. I saw him at his finest and at his worst.

I've studied under great theologians and eminent professors. But I have never been exposed to a more formidable intellect. I found him once reading Edmund Burke's debates in Parliament. He had an insatiable intellectual curiosity and an utterly spongelike mind.

One day I was advising him on a relatively insignificant domestic matter. He looked at me for a moment, stared upward briefly, and then said, "I don't think that's the same thing you advised me in memo you wrote me about a year ago." Stunned, I returned to my office to discover that he was absolutely right. The memo was precisely as he had remembered it.

Mr. Nixon would listen to a host of arguments from different perspectives for about 20 minutes and then brilliantly cut through different positions, identify the critical issues, and throw the problem back at his advisers, forcing them to deal with it.

On foreign policy matters, Mr. Nixon was pure genius. I watched him formulate policy in conversations with Henry Kissinger on many, many occasions. Mr. Nixon was the initiator and grand strategist, Mr. Kissinger the tactician.

In these meetings, the devious side of Mr. Nixon was often evident but was, in many respects, the secret of his success.

I remember once when he told Henry to call in Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin and tell him that the president had lost his senses, that he, Henry, didn't know if he could restrain him, that Nixon might start using serious weapons in North Vietnam, a dramatic escalation of the war.

Nixon laughed as he coached Henry word for word on what to say. Then he sat in the Oval Office, chuckling while Kissinger carried out the mission.

Mr. Nixon all the while was withdrawing troops from Vietnam. He was a master of international intrigue and knew precisely how to play different power blocs against one another.

Charles Colson was a special counsel to President Nixon.

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