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In this letter, President Richard Nixon writes from the White House to former Senator Leverett Saltonstall of Massachusetts after Nixon’s landslide victory in the 1972 presidential election.
After his sweeping victory in 1972—the second largest landslide in American political history—President Richard Nixon took time out from planning his next term to thank Leverett Saltonstall for a congratulatory note. Saltonstall had retired from the Senate in 1967 but remained a respected senior figure in the Republican Party and someone who had successfully campaigned for the offices of governor and senator in an increasingly Democratic state. In fact the president’s opponent, Senator George McGovern, had carried only Saltonstall’s home state, Massachusetts (and the District of Columbia). Less than two years later, on 9 August 1974, Nixon was forced to resign in disgrace.
President Nixon’s letter was courteous but brief; he had served with Saltonstall in the Senate (1951-1952) and then through the Eisenhower presidency when Saltonstall had been a powerful member of the Senate Republican Party leadership, while Nixon’s role as vice president had, perhaps, diminished his relative importance as compared to that of a senior senator.
Over the course of his long political career and on into retirement, Senator Saltonstall knew and corresponded with ten American presidents (see presidential letters and photographs in “Highlights from the Saltonstall Family Collections”).
Although members of the same political party, Leverett Saltonstall and Richard Nixon had little in common except for their shared connection to an uncommonly zealous assistant, Charles W. “Chuck” Colson, who worked with each of them.
Although educated at private schools and an Ivy League college (Brown University), Chuck Colson still thought of himself as a representative of working-class values brought up in the hard school of Boston politics. While he was studying law in Washington, Colson joined Leverett Saltonstall’s staff, serving the senator as a loyal and efficient office manager and then, in 1960, as the “invaluable” manager of Saltonstall's last, closely-fought campaign for reelection. Saltonstall described Colson as a “captain of marines” which was technically correct (Colson had served a brief tour as a Marine Corps officer and then in the reserves), but it was probably a better description of how he presented himself—tough-minded and prepared to overcome any obstacle that stood between him and his mission.
In his memoir, Born Again, Colson tells a darker story of the last Saltonstall campaign, when he kept his behind-the-scenes manipulation of opponents secret and allowed his patrician candidate to remain above the fray. Even after his spiritual awakening, Colson still looked back fondly on how, during the 1960 senatorial campaign, he had invented a supposed “grassroots” movement of Democratic voters for presidential candidate John F. Kennedy—who was immensely popular in Massachusetts—and that these voters would split their tickets between both Kennedy and Saltonstall. Colson would later become a dangerously zealous advocate for President Nixon, but in 1960 this put him at odds with the Republican presidential campaign.
Chuck Colson left the Saltonstall senatorial office after the 1960 election and founded a law firm that represented corporate interests in Washington. From 1969 to 1973 he served as special counsel to President Nixon where, according to Leverett Saltonstall, “Colson’s loyalty to another led him into difficulties.” In fact, when the Wall Street Journal introduced Colson to the public as “Nixon’s hatchet man” who handled the president’s “dirty work,” they quoted an unnamed former member of Senator Saltonstall’s staff who stated that “Chuck Colson would walk over his own grandmother if he had to”—the pattern of his later behavior already had been set. This vivid description later morphed into “Colson would “run over his grandmother if necessary to elect Nixon” (eliciting angry mail from grandmothers), but in the face of much criticism in the press, Colson rather gleefully admitted that the original quotation was “absolutely accurate.”
Chuck Colson’s journey would later take some unexpected turns. In the White House (actually in the president’s hideaway office next door) he and Nixon both fed off of each other’s “dark side.” In the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, Colson pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in the Daniel Ellsberg case. He served a brief sentence in federal prison where he had a religious conversion and left his business career to found Prison Fellowship Ministries. In 1993, the “‘evil genius’ of an evil administration” was awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. Charles Colson died in 2012.
On 9 September at 5:30 PM, the Massachusetts Historical Society will present a virtual conversation between John Dean and William Weld that will begin with Watergate, a sea change in American politics. “Standing Up, Stepping Forward, & Speaking Out: The Political Courage to Take a Principled Stand,” will be moderated by Edward Widmer. The conversation will use Watergate as a springboard to explore the need for honesty and political courage in public life—even when that means breaking party ties.
Register for the online program at www.masshist.org/events.
Colson, Charles W. Born Again. Grand Rapids: Chosen Books, 2008.
Originally published in 1976.
Saltonstall, Leverett. Autograph collection (1830-1996).
The Richard Nixon letter forms part of the Leverett Saltonstall Autograph Collection which consists for the most part of letters written to Saltonstall during his political career and on into his retirement by politicians and members of their families; journalists; radio and television personalities; and movie stars; along with similar letters to the Senator’s son, William L. Saltonstall.
The collection includes a guestbook kept at the Massachusetts State House while Leverett Saltonstall served as governor, 1939–1944. Members of the Von Trapp family singers signed the guestbook in 1940. Their visit was described as an object of the month in March 2014.
Leverett Saltonstall Papers. 1830-1896.
The Leverett Saltonstall Autograph Collection was removed from the Senator’s enormous collection of personal papers that document his long public career—a collection so large that when it arrived at the Massachusetts Historical Society it was measured by the ton. Saltonstall’s senatorial papers (originally organized by Charles Colson) are very extensive and are divided into two series, described as:
Saltonstall, Leverett. The Autobiography of Leverett Saltonstall: Massachusetts Governor; U.S. Senator; and Yankee Icon. London and Boulder: Rowan & Littlefield, 2015.
Originally published as Salty: Recollections of a Yankee in Politics in 1976.
Thomas, Evan. Being Nixon: A Man Divided. New York: Random House, 2015.
Thomas gives a concise account of the Watergate scandal as seen from inside the White House—and the role of Chuck Colson in it.