A “hatchet man” is an operative in charge of doing political dirty work — or dirty tricks — both during a campaign and sometimes as part of normal government functions.
The word was first popularized during the Watergate scandal. Several of Richard Nixon’s aides, notably Charles Colson and H.R. Haldeman, were known as the president’s hatchet men, charged with taking care of his dirty work.
As the New York Times reported, Colson “caught the president’s eye” and rose in the administration quickly, thanks to his apparent ruthlessness.
His “instinct for the political jugular and his ability to get things done made him a lightning rod for my own frustrations,” Nixon wrote in his memoir, RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon. In 1970, the president made him his “political point man” for “imaginative dirty tricks. When I complained to Colson, I felt confident that something would be done,” Nixon wrote. “I was rarely disappointed.”
Colson hired E. Howard Hunt, a former CIA operative, to spy on Nixon’s political opponents. He also admitted to conspiring to destroy the reputation of Daniel Ellsberg, the former National Security Council member who leaked the Pentagon papers. He served time in jail, where he said he had experienced a religious awakening, eventually becoming an evangelical leader and forging a coalition of Republican protestants and Catholics.