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SUNDAY PROFILE : Nixon's Taylor

Committed to the Man and the Statesman, the Director of the Library Champions a Presidential Legacy

February 18, 1996|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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."

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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.

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