Commentary: I know what Illinois governor feels like now
Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Charles W. Colson, a former aide to President Nixon, is the founder of Prison Fellowship, the world’s largest Christian outreach to prisoners. President Bush this week acknowledged Colson’s work among prisoners, awarding him the Presidential Citizens Medal. Colson was imprisoned for obstruction of justice in the attempt to smear Daniel Ellsberg, who disclosed the secret history of the Vietnam War known as the Pentagon Papers.
WASHINGTON (CNN) — If anyone knows how Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich feels right now, I do.
On Tuesday, the governor was arrested in a glare of publicity and charged with going on “a corruption crime spree,” as U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald described it — including alleged attempts to sell President-elect Barack Obama’s Senate seat.
Some 35 years ago that ugly glare of publicity was focused on me as I was charged with a Watergate-related crime, subsequently convicted and sent to prison. The governor hasn’t been convicted and is entitled to the presumption of innocence.
In the wake of Blagojevich’s arrest, many Americans are left wondering once again how intelligent people can do such stupid things — especially when they’ve achieved the pinnacle of power.
The answer comes down to pride.
At the height of Watergate, a dear friend of mine, Tom Phillips, then CEO of Raytheon, invited me to his home. As we sat in his kitchen, Tom read to me a chapter on pride from a little book by C.S. Lewis titled “Mere Christianity.”
Lewis wrote, “There is one vice of which no man in the world is free. … The vice I am talking about is Pride or Self-conceit. …. Pride leads to every other vice. … A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you. … Pride is a spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.”
Tom — who told me about Jesus Christ that night — didn’t know I was in utter despair over Watergate, watching the president I’d worked for flounder in office. I’d learned I might become a target of the investigation. In short, my world was collapsing.
That night I sat in a darkened driveway and in a flood of tears called out to God. I didn’t know what to say; I just knew I needed Christ. At that moment God took the White House “hatchet man” and turned me into a new creation.
I went on to serve seven months in prison. As lonely and demeaning as that experience was, I have never regretted it. I can honestly agree with Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who wrote from the gulag, “Bless you, prison, bless you for being in my life, for there, lying on the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity, as we are made to believe, but the maturing of the human soul.”
Which brings me to a second reason for Blagojevich’s fall: the culture of self.
Like me, Blagojevich grew up in a culture that taught the great goal of life was material success, power and influence. I grew up during the Great Depression; I thought if a smart guy like me earned a law degree and accumulated academic honors, they would enable me to find power, fulfillment and meaning in life.
I made a lot of money in my law practice and accepted a White House job. But by then, I had became very self-righteous; I was absolutely certain that no one could corrupt me. All my investments went into a blind trust. Whenever someone gave me a gift, I immediately turned it over to my chauffeur. And yet I ended up going to prison.
I now realize that every human being has an infinite capacity for self-rationalization and self-delusion. Those who serve in public life are faced with enormous peer pressure and don’t always take time to stop and think carefully about what they’re doing.
Sometimes — absorbed in accumulating political power — they’re not interested in stopping to think. But as I learned firsthand, self-obsession destroys character. It has to.
Tragically, America is continuing to rear its young to become not only self-obsessed, but obsessed with personal power. Quaint-sounding virtues such as courage, honesty and prudence — historically considered the elements of character — are no match for a society in which the exaltation and gratification of self becomes the overriding goal of life.
If Blagojevich is guilty, the best thing that could happen to him is to be tried and convicted. He’s going to have to reach rock bottom — just as I did — before he will be able to escape his own prison of pride, self-delusion and self-righteousness. But that’s a transformation we can never accomplish on our own. I can vouch for the fact that human pride is simply too strong.
Lewis was right: Pride is a spiritual cancer. And the only cure, for any of us, is to stop looking down and to look up. The cure can only be brought about in someone who has come to realize that the will and power to do good and not evil comes from God alone.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Charles W. Colson.