June 12, 1978 12:00 PM

His reputation may still be in tatters to much of the nation, but former President Richard Nixon is a symbol of freedom and hope to one group of Americans. So it was that 300 former Vietnam prisoners of war and their families trooped to Nixon’s Casa Pacifica estate for two hours of remembrance and tribute. The reception, Nixon’s most ambitious since leaving office, also marked the POWs’ first formal reunion since a lavish dinner at the Nixon White House celebrated their release in 1973.

With daughter Tricia Cox serving as hostess (wife Pat was ill with a virus), Nixon greeted his guests with Mexican hors d’oeuvres, frosty margaritas and a strolling mariachi band. The POWs, in turn, presented their onetime Commander in Chief with a painting, signed by each of them, depicting a prison uniform hung on a hook for the last time. “We have a debt of eternal gratitude to you which we will never be able to repay,” declared Air Force Maj. Gen. John P. Flynn. “We wish you the best.”

On this day, at least, the wish would be fulfilled. Standing on the patio by the swimming pool, where he once entertained Leonid Brezhnev and other world leaders, Nixon made a plea for “patriotism, national purpose, pride and responsibility,” and drew warm applause from his audience. The ebullient host chatted happily with the POWs, kissed their wives and startled one Southern couple by breaking into a chorus of Carolina Moon. Ever the amiable host, Nixon even encouraged the women to walk across the greens of his golf course in their high heels, explaining that he needed an excuse for missing putts.

Afterward the partygoers moved inside to take snapshots in the master bedroom and climb the turret to the ex-President’s den. Air Force Maj. Myron Donald, who spent five years in North Vietnam, spoke of Watergate: “We’re all persuaded to do things we don’t want to do, which proves we’re not all perfect. For Nixon, Watergate was like being broken for the first time. But it looks as though he’s glued himself together again.”

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