By Patti Reilly
September 22, 1980 12:00 PM

My position is that of detective, confessor, vaudevillian, advocate,” says John McLaughlin, 53. Then, with a grin, the former priest and onetime Nixon speech writer adds, “and devil’s advocate.” He is describing his job as host of a twice-weekly talk show over radio station WRC in Washington, D.C. With guests, especially provocative ones like Barry Goldwater or Gene McCarthy, “I joust, challenge, taunt, lay back,” McLaughlin says. “I sometimes even concede.”

Concession was seldom his style during his three years in the White House. Hired after an unsuccessful 1970 race for the Senate from Rhode Island, the Republican priest became the White House resident moralist and one of Nixon’s staunchest defenders. He condoned the 1972 Christmas bombings of Hanoi, dismissed the President’s obscenities on the Oval Office tapes as merely “a form of emotional drainage,” and once assured a national TV audience that because of Nixon’s overtures toward China he would be remembered as “the greatest moral leader of the last third of this century.”

During his White House duty, McLaughlin drew a $32,000-a-year salary and shared a Watergate apartment with a pet basset hound named Oliver. For giving up his clerical garb in favor of business suits (he once characterized his Roman collar as “a one-inch piece of plastic”), he was dubbed “the Brooks Brothers Jesuit.” For his politics, a fellow priest bitterly labeled him “a Judas.”

By 1974, McLaughlin had become so controversial that the Jesuits asked him to quit the White House. He did so, and the following year applied for papal dispensation to leave the priesthood and marry the divorcée who had managed his 1970 Senate campaign. She was Ann Dore, a fellow Catholic and public relations consultant 14 years McLaughlin’s junior. She had joined the Nixon administration as public affairs director for the Environmental Protection Agency in 1973. Within three months, the Vatican notified him by telephone that he was being relieved of all priestly duties. But Ann’s application for a papal annulment has still not been granted. (She was very briefly married to an investment banker in 1965.) The McLaughlins’ civil marriage in 1975 is not recognized by the Church. “I couldn’t imagine going through life without her,” McLaughlin says. “I needed her, and I loved her.”

Ann McLaughlin operates a consulting firm in Washington, specializing in public affairs and media relations. They divide their time between a country place on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and a two-bedroom townhouse on Capitol Hill. There, a photograph of Nixon and a glass GOP elephant confirm that few of McLaughlin’s views have changed. The former President, he concedes, did make “errors in judgment,” but should have been “censured rather than forced to resign.” As for his own leave-taking from the Jesuit order, “I don’t miss being a priest,” he maintains. “The fulfillment factor in matrimony is far greater.”

Still a maverick, John publicly opposes priestly celibacy, advocates the inclusion of women in the priesthood and denounces the Vatican’s effort to keep priests out of elective politics as “an unjust intrusion of the Church into the affairs of the State.” Many of his views find their way into his conversations on the weekend talk and phone-in show he first took over as a vacation replacement last year. “Radio in a way is preaching,” muses John, who has a doctorate in communications from Columbia. “Maybe it’s my pastoral role extended.”

Meanwhile, he hopes for children (“There’s no substitute for the experience of childbearing or child rearing”) and has begun to write his memoirs. He may even run for Congress again. “I’m Irish,” he explains. “All Irish have some bit of the politician in them.”