LOS ANGELES, JULY 19 -- This was a reunion of the people who essentially never doubted there would be a Nixon library one day.

"Certainly on August 9th, 1974, we didn't think about it," said Herb Stein, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under then-President Richard M. Nixon. "This is really just a kind of symbol of what's happening. He's earned a lot of respect since leaving the White House. And it didn't take a black-tie dinner to prove it."

But that is what Nixon got tonight to cap off the dedication of the Nixon Library and Birthplace in Orange County south of here. Former staffers and loyal friends, 1,500 of them, tuxedoed and relaxed, mingled before dinner at the Century Plaza Hotel. They were serenaded by the muffled chants of a couple of hundred demonstrators on the street outside of the hotel, supporting an amalgam of issues -- funding for AIDS research, abortion rights, an end to war in El Salvador.

Roy Clason, a 28-year-old who went to Whittier College as a Nixon Scholar, looked quietly across the courtyard to where the demonstrators were assembled. "I think this is very disappointing," said Clason, now director of policy at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in Washington. "Certainly they have every right to do this, but I don't think their signs are deserving of identification with either political party."

There were famous names expected -- Henry Kissinger, Alexander Haig, Maurice Stans -- but security being what it was (tight), reporters were not allowed onto the level of the ballroom where the dinner was to take place. Nor would dinner staffers reveal who had checked in.

But you could find people like Robin LaFerrara, 26, of Long Beach, Calif., and her father, Gene Boyer, who was chief pilot on President Nixon's helicopter. "We visited him when he lived in San Clemente," said LaFerrara of the former president.

Fern Lazar, 29, flew in from New York City, where she works in public relations. "It's exhilarating and I'm very proud to be a part of it," said Lazar. "It should have happened a long time ago." She smiled ruefully. "Better late than never."

Mary Elia, who is now the secretary to Nixon's commerce secretary, Maurice Stans, helped her boss raise funds for the privately financed $21 million library. Stans, the finance chairman of Nixon's reelection campaign in 1972, was chairman of the library fund-raising drive.

"I thought he could do it," Elia said confidently of her boss. "He was the right man for the job." Elia said she has never paid any attention to the criticism of Nixon.

Added her husband, Reese, "The ones who are going to judge him harshly will judge harshly. The ones who are going to say it could happen to anyone are going to say that." As for Reese Elia: "I think he just got caught. They all do it."

Lloyd and Mabel Johnson flew in from Ann Arbor, Mich. "I would give my life to be here," said Lloyd Johnson, who headed the Nixon Justice Fund in 1976. "I was ready to leave this country 16 years ago. I thought my countrymen had been brainwashed."

Johnson reacted with amusement to the demonstrators outside. "They seem to be incoherent," he said. "There are so many causes... . I see signs saying 'GOP Death Squads.' I said if there were GOP Death Squads, those people would all be dead."

There were a number of Washington faces. Political consultant Roger Stone was at the dinner. Gregg Petersmeyer, a deputy assistant to President Bush and director of the Office of National Service, flew in for the event.

Petersmeyer's office administers Bush's "Thousand Points of Light" program.

"He's the head flashlight," quipped Charlie McWhorter, now retired from AT&T, as he chatted with Petersmeyer.

"I was the youngest member of the White House staff" under Nixon, said Petersmeyer, who joined Nixon's administration a week after graduation from Harvard in 1972. He is 41 now. Wednesday night he went to a reception at the library for former staff members.

"He seemed very well," Petersmeyer said of Nixon. "He had tremendous stamina and intellectual strength."

Many of last night's guests, who paid $250 each for tickets for the day's events, including the dinner, were in their twenties -- they were youngsters when Nixon resigned in 1974. "I think my support for President Nixon goes back to my research of his achievements -- especially in foreign policy and in environmental issues," said Roy Clason, who was 12 when Nixon left Washington.

By Friday, when the ceremonies and the dinners are over, the library should be quieter. "I'm thinking of going back this week," said Clason, "to take a longer look."