As director of the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda, he is the official keeper of the Nixon legacy. He was one of Nixon’s closest confidants in his later years and is co-executor of the former president’s estate.
But John H. Taylor, 41, wasn’t born into the Nixon camp.
When he met Nixon in 1979, Taylor was a Democrat. A 24-year-old college student, his views of the 37th president had been shaped largely by politically liberal parents and the Watergate scandal. Indeed, early on, Nixon would affectionately introduce Taylor as “our house liberal.”
Taylor hadn’t anticipated meeting the former president personally when he and three other political science students at UC San Diego were hired to do research for a book Nixon was writing on world leaders.
“The fact that he took time to meet with us was astonishing to me,” Taylor says. “I was struck by the care he took to ask each of us about ourselves and what our impressions were of the leaders he had asked us to study.”
Clutching an autographed copy of Nixon’s memoirs as he left the former Western White House in San Clemente, Taylor never imagined he’d wind up making a career of Richard Nixon.
Hired as a full-time researcher and editorial assistant in 1980, he rose to become Nixon’s chief of staff in 1984 and in 1990 was named executive director of the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace Foundation.
“More than a career, it’s become a life’s work,” says Taylor, who lives in Yorba Linda not far from the library, which opened in 1990. “Looking back, there’s not a single other direction I wish my life would have taken.”
The Nixon Library is the capstone of the former president’s transformation from political exile to globe-trotting elder statesman.
Each year, nearly a quarter of a million visitors--from schoolchildren to those old enough to have voted for Nixon when he first ran for Congress in 1946--wander through the library and 9 acres of manicured grounds, visiting the wood-framed farmhouse where Nixon was born in 1913 and, a short stroll away, the grave where he was buried next to his wife, Pat, in 1994.
The exhibits in the library’s museum galleries cover the historical years in between: The political campaigns. The Checkers speech. The Nixon-Kennedy debates. The winning of the White House. Detente with the Soviet Union. The opening of relations with China. Vietnam. Watergate.
Taylor spends much of his 10-hour workdays overseeing the planning of temporary exhibitions (“Rockin’ the White House: Four Decades of Presidents and Popular Music” runs until June), guest speakers (from Henry Kissinger to Charlton Heston) and fund-raising (the privately funded library, with a $3.6-million annual operating budget, has been in the black since 1993).
Taylor is also a member of the board of directors and executive committee chairman of the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom, an independent division of the Nixon Foundation. The bipartisan foreign and domestic policy institute opened in Washington, D.C., in 1994.
With the December release of director Oliver Stone’s film “Nixon,” Taylor found himself taking on yet another role: film critic.
In a statement released through the library, the Nixon family denounced Stone for committing “character assassination” against Richard Nixon.
Sitting in his office beneath the library lobby, Taylor calls the movie “malicious” and “cruelly invasive of the Nixons’ personal privacy,” then strikes a more balanced note.
Finding historical truth, he says, “is a process, and no one would ever say that Mr. Stone was not entitled to say what he did and to show what he did, but so too are we entitled--and indeed it’s incumbent upon us--to reply as we did because that’s part of the process too.”
The Nixon library followed up the family’s statement with a newspaper ad comparing Stone’s “commercial fiction” with the Nixon Library’s “three-dimensional reality” and invited readers to visit the Nixon Library “if you prefer facts to fantasy.”
There are, to be sure, those who feel the library glosses over controversial aspects of the only American president to resign office to avoid impeachment.
Stone’s assessment: “The Nixon Library would make Mr. Nixon’s old friend Leonid Brezhnev proud. It’s like a Soviet museum--a revisionist history that far exceeds that of any other presidential library.”
Taylor, along with the president, was responsible for the library’s vision and content.
“I think it hits the key points,” he says. “I wouldn’t suggest it doesn’t argue a point of view [about Richard Nixon], but what I would suggest is it doesn’t leave out information which we’re afraid that if we put it in it would undermine our arguments.”
The library’s archives include only pre- and post-presidential material. Presidential papers and tape recordings were seized in 1974 by an act of Congress.
But Taylor says lawsuits are pending regarding public access to the Nixon materials in Washington as well as the question of whether the Nixon estate should be compensated for the government’s seizing of those materials. Taylor, who along with Nixon’s attorney William E. Griffin is co-executor of Nixon’s estate, says Nixon specified that the bulk of any income from a successful compensation suit would be turned over to the library.
Sipping coffee from a souvenir Nixon library mug, Taylor says that “we believe--and indeed count on--the fact that the debate over the meaning of the life and the accomplishments and the failures of Richard Nixon is an ongoing one that will preoccupy Americans for a long time, and we’re just playing our role in that.”
As “one who knew President Nixon and worked for him and cared about him and came to admire enormously what he had meant to the world,” Taylor clearly relishes his role as Nixon advocate.
Taylor, born in 1954, spent his early years in Detroit, where his father, Harvey Taylor, was entertainment editor of the Detroit Times and his mother, Jean Sharley Taylor, was a feature writer for the Detroit Free Press.
Taylor’s parents separated when he was 2 and divorced when he was 6. In 1967, Taylor and his mother moved to Phoenix, where she worked for the Arizona Republic.
By the time his mother landed a job as an editor at the Los Angeles Times in 1971, Taylor was attending Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. He readily admits he wasn’t accepted into the prestigious prep school because of academic distinction--"I was a mediocre student"--but because his father’s great-grandfather had once been the school’s principal.
Taylor served as an editor of the student newspaper at Phillips and later was editor-in-chief of the campus paper at UC San Diego.
Despite the student unrest of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, he avoided becoming involved in the anti-war movement and describes himself at the time as being apolitical.
Taylor says he has friends his age in “greater Nixondom” who walked precincts for Nixon in 1960 at the age of 6 and volunteered in the 1968 and ’72 presidential campaigns.
“I didn’t do that, and indeed at the time I probably would have embraced a lot of the anti-Nixon cant simply because that was what was abroad in the culture, particularly on college campuses. And, I’ve got to tell you, I’ve felt bad about that.
“I became so loyal to President Nixon that I felt badly that I hadn’t done my homework then, and I feel as though I was disloyal to him even before I knew him. That might contribute a little bit to my sort of fierce advocacy now.”
After three years (but only one solid year of academic work) at UCSD, Taylor dropped out in 1976 to work as a reporter and editor for the twice-weekly Chula Vista Star News. “It’s all I figured I’d do,” he says. “I loved to write.”
Lowell Blankfort, former co-owner and editor of the Star News, recalls Taylor as being “a wonderful employee--very clever, wrote good copy, very smart.” But after two years, Taylor had gotten journalism out of his system. He returned to UC San Diego where, in “a blaze of industry,” he made up missing units and completed three years of college work in two years.
Two months after graduating in 1980, Taylor was offered the job as a full-time researcher and editorial assistant for Nixon, who by then had moved to New York. Taylor replaced Hugh Hewitt, now a lawyer and conservative television commentator. He would once again replace his friend Hewitt, who served as temporary director of the Nixon library during its construction and opening in 1990. Jokes Taylor: “Hugh and I have been swapping jobs for 15 years.”
Ray Price, a former Nixon speech writer who was Nixon’s chief book collaborator at the time, says the four UCSD students who provided research assistance for Nixon’s book “Leaders” were “all very good, but one was just clearly in a class by himself, and that was John. He’s really a first-class mind and first-class talent.”
Hewitt describes Taylor as “an original and very focused thinker. That’s what attracted him, I believe, to President Nixon, and he valued that John can cut through an enormous amount of information to its core and do so in an original way.”
Taylor’s decision to work for Nixon, however, shocked many of those who knew Taylor in the ‘70s.
“I was astounded when he turned up working for Nixon,” Blankfort says. “I thought he was more liberal than he apparently was.”
Taylor’s mother, now Jean Taylor-Lescoe and a retired associate editor of the Los Angeles Times, remembers her friend, Washington Post political writer Myra MacPherson, being “very upset with me that the John she remembered had gone with Nixon.”
Several colleagues had such strong anti-Nixon feelings that they stopped speaking to her altogether, she said.
“They could not countenance my tolerance of John’s job choice to go with Nixon,” she says. “It is true many people believe because of my liberal feelings that somehow John should be a rubber stamp. I think most mothers would disagree with that.”
When her son was offered the job with Nixon, Taylor-Lescoe says, she felt it would be “a wonderful opportunity to learn.
“The next 15 years he was with a man who treated him kindly. John said he felt as if he earned at least three [doctorates] in history while listening to the former president discuss world affairs. Nixon took him around the world many times. So he’s a Nixon loyalist. I can see John would be faithful to him, and he is. I admire John for that.”
By 1984, Taylor was helping Nixon chief of staff Nicholas Ruwe, and when Ruwe quit, Taylor took over.
“He turned into a very sharp administrator,” Price says. “He had a phenomenal capacity to keep on top of everything. Of course, he became very close to the president.”
In his biography, “Nixon: A Life,” Jonathan Aitken says Taylor and Nixon worked so well together that “it became the best relationship he had enjoyed with an aide since his White House days with Henry Kissinger.”
Nixon, Aitken writes, “used Taylor as a daily intellectual sparring partner on whom to test his ideas about the morning’s news stories, the latest political situation or the overnight developments in foreign policy.”
Says Hewitt: “I think probably with the exception of President Nixon’s family, there is no individual walking around on Earth who knew Richard Nixon better than John Taylor. That’s because he spent 10 years with him at the end of his life in close and constant companionship.”
During his time with Nixon, Taylor accompanied the ex-president to 13 countries, including China and Russia.
The privileged position he found himself in--to be in the same room with Nixon and Russian leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev or Nixon and Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping--was not lost on the former political science student. “I would pinch myself every day,” he says.
Taylor remembers Nixon for his droll sense of humor, his love of entertaining and the pleasure he took in the process of writing. He also remembers Nixon’s generosity.
On a 1987 speaking trip to Paris and London with Nixon, Taylor mentioned that he was going to stay over a few days in England and be joined by his wife, Marcia, and daughter. “The next day, I came in and there was an envelope on my chair. He had written “John’ on the front, and inside was a check and a note that said, ‘The enclosed is for you and Marcia to use for something special on your trip to England.”’
That, Taylor says, “was Richard Nixon, and if you talk to anyone that ever worked for him, he or she could tell you stories like that.”
The bookshelf in Taylor’s office at the library contains the six of Nixon’s nine post-presidential books that Taylor helped produce. Also on the shelf is Taylor’s original autographed copy of Nixon’s memoirs--since chewed on by Taylor’s dog.
While working for Nixon, Taylor found time to write his own book, “Patterns of Abuse,” (1988, Wynwood Press), a political thriller about the abuse of press and political power. In it, an American president--a Democrat--places a Washington Post reporter under house arrest to prevent him from leaking a top-secret mission to rescue hostages from Lebanon. Taylor wrote the book in eight months; a second novel, which took him three years to write, remains unpublished.
Taylor and his wife, who met while working at the Chula Vista Star News, separated in June. They have two daughters, Valerie, 10, and Lindsay, 7.
In his time away from the library, Taylor coaches his eldest daughter’s basketball team. A lifelong rock ‘n’ roll fan, he indulged in a whim on his 40th birthday: He bought a guitar and has been taking lessons for more than a year. “I just love it,” he says.
Taylor says he would like to write another novel. But mornings are his most creative time of day, he says, and he owes that time to the library.
At least twice a week on the phone, he talks to Julie Nixon Eisenhower and Tricia Nixon Cox, whom he describes as “active, involved and interested co-chairs of our foundation.”
When he took over as library director, Taylor says, he quickly discovered he would have to “master the art of the brief remark.”
A polished speaker with a resonant voice, he serves as host or emcee for up to 20 library programs and functions each year. He also eagerly accepts more than a dozen outside speech requests a year: “I mean, if the Rotary Club of Placentia or the Soroptimists of Anaheim ask, I’ll show up at the drop of a hat to give a speech about President Nixon.”
Taylor is working on plans for the library’s annual national policy conference, to be held this fall. Co-sponsored this year by the New York City-based nonpartisan Center for the Study of the Presidency, the conference will address how recent history has been filtered through the perspective of filmmakers with political outlooks. Stone and other filmmakers will be invited to participate.
Without question, Taylor says, the most important moment in the life of the library was Nixon’s funeral in 1994.
In attendance were the five living presidents and their first ladies, diplomats from 86 nations and scores of past and present government officials from the full political spectrum.
Nixon had suffered a stroke April 18 at his home in Park Ridge, N.J. He died four days later.
Taylor and the library staff were “in the thick of preparations for what by then appeared to be an inevitable outcome,” but the death of the president came as a blow.
While their relationship was always a professional one--staff member to boss, he says--it was something more.
Taylor says he had not been particularly close to his own father, who died in 1975, “and fate seemed to have inserted in my life a development in the form of someone [on whom] I could bestow that kind of loyalty. But I’m very hesitant to say it that way, because I don’t want to sort of transform him into a father figure nor, even more presumptuously, me into a son figure.
“I was a staff member who served him for a long time as a staff member does. But I did feel as though I had lost a member of my family, and I can’t deny that.”
That feeling underlies the intense loyalty he felt and continues to feel toward Nixon, Taylor says.
“He was someone that I could sort of speak up for in the schoolyard against all comers.”
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John H. Taylor
Background: Age 41. Born in Detroit; now lives in Yorba Linda.
Interests: Reading, writing, rock ‘n’ roll and learning to play the guitar. “I was probably a little square as a kid, but I always liked rock ‘n’ roll.”
On the nine books Richard Nixon wrote after resigning from the presidency: “The reason he wrote so much is, not only did he have a lot to say and wanted to comment on the events of the day but because it was really the only outlet for his intellectual powers that approximated statecraft. He needed to engage his mind.”
On Nixon, the luncheon companion: “He was a lot of fun to actually go out to eat with because if someone walked by, he would say, ‘Oh, I wonder how much that suit cost?’ Or, ‘I wonder if she’s famous?’ He was a people-watcher and a student of behavior. He loved to hear about how other people lived and about what peoples’ experiences were like.”
On living in Orange County: “Orange County’s got this sort of monolithic image, but the people are just as interesting and as complicated and majestic and screwed up as they are anyplace else.”