YORBA LINDA, CALIF., JULY 20 -- A bearded young man, among several thousand visitors pouring in for the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace opening today, sat wearing earphones in the dimly lit Watergate Room and struggling to hide his disgust. "There's only the smallest snippets of the June 23 tape," he complained to a friend.

A much older man in a sport shirt and shorts, engrossed in a lengthy display of text and pictures defending Nixon's fall from grace, gave the young men an unfriendly look. "Can you keep it down, please?" he said.

Nearly 16 years after his resignation from the presidency, as glowing speeches and admiring cover stories seem to be wearing the hard edges off the jagged Nixon image, the opening of this multimedia tribute to the nation's 37th president today brought the old familiar bile right back up to many throats, and yet they seemed to enjoy the taste. In this era of blander politics, it was invigorating to wander once more into the frights and passions of Nixonland.

Watergate "was just something the Democrats used stop him with," said Earl Reaves, a retired leasing executive from Highland, Calif. "I don't think it amounted to anything."

Susan Reker, a Riverside, Calif., truck company owner, strolled out of the 60-foot-long Watergate Room to pronounce it "a terrible scandal." And Nixon? "He was a terrible scandal too."

The first public viewing of the $21 million building reveals an array of exhibits with all of their subject's best and worst characteristics. The Nixon Library is warm, argumentative, sentimental, defensive, worldly and, above all, obsessed with the force of will and persistence in human affairs.

It has a 1955 letter from a daughter to her traveling parents: "DEAR MOMMY AND DADDY, HOW ARE YOU? NANA HAS MADE A NEW RULE. IF WE FEED CHECKERS AT THE TABLE SHE HAS TO GO UT. I LOVE YOU BOTH, XXXXXX, Julie."

It has the chrome-plated Colt .45 (Exhibit No. 119) given President Nixon by Elvis Presley, with seven neatly arranged bullets and an autographed picture of the rock music legend, his wife and his daughter. It has "Rock in the Shape of President Nixon's Profile" (Exhibit No. 135), a gift from former senator Barry Goldwater that leaves the viewer to divine the significance of the huge hole in its center.

It also has the Watergate Room, with its tapes and "Watergate: The Final Campaign" exhibit offering one of the most intricate and unabashed defenses ever assembled of Nixon in his darkest hour. "Nixon himself said he made inexcusable misjudgments during Watergate," the narrative reads. "But what is equally clear is that his political opponents ruthlessly exploited those misjudgments as a way to further their own, purely political goals."

Here and there are small errors, a sign of haste in making today's deadline for the public opening after Thursday's gala ceremonies with Nixon, President Bush and former presidents Ford and Reagan. Some words are misspelled, and a Chinese Nixon biography and marble bookends are described as gifts of "Chiang Ching-Kuo, Vice Premier of the People's Republic of China" -- Chiang, the son of Chiang Kai-shek, was actually part of the rival Republic of China government in Taiwan.

But the exhibits, heavy with video for a career that paralleled the rise of the television age, capture Nixon from many surprising sides and create historical echoes that many visitors said they enjoyed. Most celebrities walked through on Thursday, but Rose Mary Woods, the longtime Nixon secretary blamed for one of the mysterious gaps on the White House tapes, was here today.

"It's absolutely wonderful," she said, walking out of Nixon's tiny wood-frame birthplace house beside the library. She came today "because I'm just like everybody else," she said, "and if you look at everything you'll see so was President Nixon."

"Never Give Up," the film that begins the visit in a theater off the library, is little more than a polished campaign biography, with some perhaps unintentional ironies. A line from Nixon's 1968 convention acceptance speech, "A long, dark night for America is about to end," curiously foreshadows his successor's first words after Nixon left the White House in disgrace: "Our long national nightmare is over."

The film, like much of the rest of the library, also has personal moments to warm the heart of even the most intense Nixonophobe. A professional film crew captured, for instance, Nixon granddaughters Jennie and Melanie Eisenhower in matching polka-dot dresses singing for Pat Nixon on her birthday. The little house his father built from a kit displays some of the original furniture; in the background, Nixon's voice plays on a recording: "I read in front of the fireplace until bedtime. I have always enjoyed reading. My mother taught me at the age of 6."

The emerging politician's harshest moments are rarely presented in anything but the best light. In attacking Democratic Senate candidate Rep. Helen Gahagan Douglas, he was only "taking his cues from the Democrats" who had tried to make an issue of her links to Rep. Vito Marcantonio (D-N.Y.), "an admitted friend of the Communist Party," the exhibit says. His assault on the press after losing the California governor's race, the exhibit argues, probably won him more balanced coverage when he ran for president in 1968.

In the Watergate Room, this approach is taken to the extreme. The sound of his voice on the Watergate tapes, as well as H.R. Haldeman's, is irresistibly intriguing, but is heard in only short bites connected by a narrator's lengthier explanations. Although Nixon suggested in the June 23, 1972, "smoking gun" tape that the White House might suppress the Watergate investigation by claiming a threat to CIA secrets, the narrator insists the tape only shows "he was aware of the political consequences" and says his suggestion was neutralized by his order two weeks later to keep the investigation going.

Anna Bauer, a fifth-grader from Overland, Mo., born five years after Nixon left office, listened intently for several minutes and said she thought she understood. "I think he made a good decision to try to protect the CIA," she said.

At the library's last exhibit, the Presidential Forum, visitors can select from among 280 questions via a sophisticated computer jukebox and sit in a small theater to watch Nixon give the answers on videotape. His favorite food? "There is nothing better, in my view, than a charcoal-broiled hamburger." Jimmy Carter? The Camp David accords could not have happened without his "tenacity and ability."

Was he sorry about Watergate? The question was punched in several times during the day, and the televised image always said the same thing: Resigning the presidency "said it all, and I don't intend to say any more."

Excerpts from a section titled "The Drum Beat Swells," from the narrative text in the Nixon Library's Watergate Room:

"Senator Sam Ervin, Democrat of North Carolina who just nine years earlier would have denied blacks equal protection under the law with his vote against the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, was suddenly elevated to the lofty status of guardian of the Constitution when he was named chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee. ...

"Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, in their zeal to create a Watergate story through which they hoped to uncover violations of law and ethics, may have violated law and ethics themselves in pursuit of that story. As one liberal historian has written, Woodward and Bernstein have come under fire for "fail{ing} to address any of {their} ethical deficiencies ... including offering of bribes, illegally gaining access to phone numbers, and talking to members of the grand jury." While the Constitution guarantees the right of the accused to confront any witness against him, Woodward and Bernstein used anonymous sources exclusively to try and convict the President in the pages of the Post and in their best-selling book All The President's Men. ...

"The objectivity of the Watergate Special Prosecutor's Office, headed by Kennedy protege Archibald Cox, was also in serious doubt. Of the eleven senior staff members of the Special Prosecution Force, seven had been appointees of {Attorney General} Robert Kennedy. Only one was a Republican."