Pure white popcorn clouds crashed over a royal blue backdrop above St. John's Episcopal Church in Rancho Santa Margarita on a Saturday afternoon in February, a majestic scene that caused the Reverend Canon John H. Taylor--a man whose life is steeped in historical drama--to look heavenward.
"Isn't that amazing?" asked an awed Taylor, Richard Nixon's closest post-White House aide, the son of two liberal reporters, a novelist, social commentator, lover of discovery, gifted orator, and onetime director of the ex-president's private library and birthplace in Yorba Linda. "What type of cloud is that?"
I couldn't recall my grade-school science lessons, but it didn't matter. The upbeat reverend had already moved inside his church to perform pre-sermon, housekeeping rituals. Though he once served as the feisty spokesman for a politician in an around-the-clock war with real and imagined enemies, Taylor, it turns out, is at peace--even with me, a journalist and onetime Nixon-hater who'd bashed him in the late 1990s.
But nowadays, neither Taylor nor I is the same person. He's not hunting down reporters to bark inane Nixon-spin, and my loathing for that burglary-ordering White House occupant fizzled out while George W. Bush ran the free world. In a sort of détente, the two of us have become Twitter pals, drink coffee together and excitedly share stories.
The 1997 version of me couldn't fathom this development or, more important, that I would arrive at my present stance: Taylor is a renaissance man. People might wrongly assume overcompensation. Yet, in truth, my declaration of admiration is tardy. He is a figure of substance, compassion and leadership that Nixon, were he still alive, would envy.
U.S. District Court Judge Andrew J. Guilford calls Taylor "a truly remarkable man--one of those folks who does so many things well that you're left wondering how he finds the time to sleep."
On Feb. 18, Taylor delivered "Married to Mortality," a 13-minute, Ash Wednesday masterpiece sermon (available online at www.stjohnsrsm.org) mixing simple but potent scripture, poetry and an encounter with his ailing, 90-year-old mother, Jean, a former feature editor at the Los Angeles Times. At her bedside, he read aloud Jane Kenyon's poem "Otherwise":
I got out of bed on two strong legs. It might have been otherwise. I ate cereal, sweet milk, ripe, flawless peach. It might have been otherwise. I took the dog uphill to the birch wood. All morning I did the work I love.
At noon I lay down with my mate. It might have been otherwise. We ate dinner together at a table with silver candlesticks. It might have been otherwise. I slept in a bed in a room with paintings on the walls, and planned another day just like this day. But one day, I know, it will be otherwise.
"I'm reading this poem, and halfway through, I'm thinking I'm reading the wrong poem to my mother," Taylor told his congregation. "This woman, who on Monday had a medical appointment and had to undergo a procedure that was somewhat humiliating and dignity-robbing. And as she lay on the bed in the doctor's office, she looked into my eyes, seeking the kind of reassurance that I sought from her when I was 4, 5 and 6 and something hurt--and she'd told me it wasn't going to hurt much longer. And so I was reassuring her as she had reassured me, thus the cycle of life working itself out. The time when it is otherwise for my mother is now, so I was afraid it was the wrong poem. But when I finished, she smiled, and she said, 'That was pretty.'"
For Taylor, the notion of "it might have been otherwise" hits home. The family of his maternal grandmother in England planned to take the RMS Titanic on its 1912 maiden voyage but decided to use a different U.S.-bound ship two weeks later. "That made all things possible for my family," he joked during a 2004 speech.
The "otherwise" point was also a springboard for his most recent literary endeavor, Jackson Place. The novel's premise: What would have happened if, instead of resigning in 1974, Nixon had declared himself temporarily incapacitated during the Watergate scandal, loaned the Oval Office to Vice President Gerald Ford, fought impeachment charges in the U.S. Senate, won and taken back the presidency?
He began pondering the idea about 25 years ago while working for the ex-president, and he asked Bill Thompson, a legendary publisher who found the likes of Stephen King and John Grisham, for feedback. "He said, 'Forget it--nobody cares!'" Taylor recalled, chuckling.
Years later, in August 2013, he woke up one morning, wrote a chapter of Nixon getting makeup put on prior to his expected national TV resignation address and shocking the world (and his top aides) by taking the alternate history route. Taylor wrote three pages a day, finishing the book in January 2014, in time for the 40th anniversary of the actual resignation. Though it's a clever, well-written work that will intrigue history and Vietnam War buffs, major publishers declined a deal. He ended up self-publishing through Amazon.com.
Most surprising to anyone who witnessed Taylor at the peak of his aggressive, rah-rah Nixon role is that Jackson Place is hardly a blemish-free characterization of the 37th president. Indeed, the Nixon in the novel is the Nixon that Taylor says he knew well and accompanied on foreign trips, including Russia and China. Though brilliant, he cusses and plots and manipulates.
"My defensiveness about him--I was invested in him," Taylor explained. "I could put the most positive spin on the most notorious-sounding thing. But I didn't want the book to be a whitewash of Mr. Nixon. I really wanted it to be a fair portrayal--the whole Nixon zeitgeist. His point of view, as well as his family and key aides, was that any concession of weakness or failure is a tactical misstep because 'we're engaged in a galactic struggle against our enemies.' As if conceding he's human plays into the other side's hands."
Taylor saw Nixon as complex. "Everything he did, he did for a reason," the reverend observed. "He sometimes made up his own rules. He was far more congenial in small groups than people know. He had a deep introvert's fear of larger social settings. He was terrified of being happy because he thought that would mean he'd lost ground [against enemies]. He was capable of great generosity of spirit. He had a real yin-and-yang thing going, and it was a constant struggle. In his later years, he grew mellower, I think, because of his grandkids."
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Taylor's transition from flack came after realizing "Mr. Nixon can never evade his history." When the National Archives wanted to select the government's first director of the presidential library in 2006, they followed Taylor's recommendation: Cold War historian Timothy Naftali. He defends the pick as "absolutely vital" to enhance the library's credibility, but to this day, certain Nixon loyalists view Naftali, who left the post in 2011, as a communist infiltrator because he added a Watergate exhibit for visitors.
"All presidential libraries are friendly to their president," Taylor said. "But the true believers' idea of 'no criticism'? That was the Nixon tactic when he was in office. I think a middle way is possible. Besides, in 100 years, Nixon is going to come out okay."