"I just love him to death," said Louise Coombs as she clutched her free ticket to hear former president Nixon speak last night. "He did a lot for the country, and he was pushed out of office."
Coombs drove here for the occassion from Blue Mountain, a Mississppi community near the Tennessee line, despite a severely injured back, and she expressed the view of thousands of people who came to see the man who resigned the presidency in 1974.
Nixon won 84 percent of the Mississippi Gulf Coast's vote in 1972, not only for his conservative views that matched the voters', but also for his visit - and subsequent aid - to victims of Hurricane Camille, which devastated the region in August 1969.
There were no crowds along the highway to wave as his motorcade sped from the Gulfport-Biloxi regional airport to the Broadwater Beach Hotel yesterday, but about 150 people waited outside their hotels to yell their support and try to shake his hand.
At the hotel, Nixon described Tuesday's election results as a victory for conservativism, saying that "even the Democrats who were elected, for the most part, are more conservative."
He reiterated that he does not expect to be campaigning in 1980 but that he does intend to continue to write and speak on such important issues as foreign policy.
Nixon was a guest of honor at a private afternoon reception given by Frederick LaRue, a local businessman who was a Nixon White House aide, LaRue pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in the Watergate cover-up and spent four months in prison.
Among the approximately 500 invited guests were Clarke Reed, Mississippi's Republican party leader, and Fayette Mayor Charles Evers, a Democrat who called Nixon "my friend." Rep. Thad Cochran, Mississippi's Republican senator-elect, was on a post-election vacation.
As Nixon entered the crowded ballroom, a pianist thumped out "Hail to the Chief," and the guests applauded.
"I'm real proud he's here," said Jerome Comeaux, a hotel waiter. "After Camille, he did a lot for poor people who had lost their homes and everything. We had about a $60,000 loan: the only thing we saved were the clothes we had."
Several reception guests brought copies of Nixon's memoirs for him to sing. So did Louise Coombs.
"He knows how I feel about him," she said. "I've written him at the White House and at San Clemente and I told him I was coming here. I've got a picture of his grandbaby, Jenny, framed on top of my television set."
Her sister-in-law, Neil Coombs, who also made the trip, said, "He deserves everything that could be possible."
"Everything nice, that is," said Louise Coombs quickly.
The idea to invite Nixon here came from Joe Graham Post 119 of the American Legion in nearby Gulfport., Sen. James O. Eastland (D-Miss.), a longtime Nixon supporter, made the invitation, and Nixon accepted the request to appear at "a joint Veterans Day observance for everyone from the Louisiana to Alabama line," said Dick Lightsey, sports editor of the Gulfport Daily Herald, who was in charge of press credentials.
"Sure, we expected him to come," said Harvey Pucheu, the Joe Graham Post commander. Everybody knew he liked the area, and everybody liked him. "He looked just fine today, didn't he? He was bouncin'."