Richard M. Nixon's onetime defenders on the House Judiciary Committee expressed sympathy yesterday for the fallen former President, but agreed that his televised interview provided no new evidence in the Watergate case.
"I don't think any critical information was disclosed that is not known in terms of actual facts," said Rep. Charles E. Wiggins (R-Calif.), who led the opponents of impeachment during the committee hearings. "It's important to know what motivated the President, but it is not of great legal significance."
Wiggins is one of 10 Republicans who voted against all articles of impeachment until a June 23, 1972, White House tape revealed Nixon's early involvement in the cover-up of the Watergate burglary.
Wiggins said that his conclusion after listening to Nixon being interviewed by David Frost was that the motive for the cover-up was "simply one of political containment."
"I assumed that was his motive, but I never heard him say it," Wiggins said.
Several members of the committee expressed approval of Nixon's partial apology for his actions. Two Republicans - William S. Cohen of Maine and Trent Lott of Mississippi - used identical words, saying: "He came as close to admitting guilt as he could get."
Cohen, who voted for impeachment articles before the discovery of the June 23 tape, said he "saw no reason why we had to have David Frost serve as a prosecutor to confirm facts which I felt were established three years ago."
Another Republican who voted for articles of impeachement, Tom Railsback of Illinois, said: "I started out being very disappointed, and for the last 15 minutes Nixon became very human, very revealing. I thought it was refreshing that for the first time he publicly demonstrated an awareness of what he had done to the country, the system and his friends."
Railsback said that nothing Nixon said changed his opinion of the facts, but added that he thought the formerPresident was "forced to resign and has been living in isolation - he's been punished for what he's done."
Some of the Republicans who did not seek re-election or lost their House seats in the so-called "Watergate referendum" election of 1974, were less charitable to Nixon than the survivors.
"A political motive for breaking the law is probably a little higher grade than a financial motive." wryly observed David W. Dennis, now a lawyer in Richmond, Ind. Dennis, one of the 10 Republicans who switched after disclosure of the June 23 tape, was defeated for re-election in 1974.
Former Rep. Charles W. Sandman (R-N.J.), widely known as a Nixon defender, also was defeated for reelection in 1974.
"I suppose I lost more than anyone else because of my position on the committee," said Sandman, who said that Nixon was "very weak" in explaining his reasons for the cover-up.
"The second half of the program he was very emotional," Sandman said. "He showed some manly qualities. He was humble, and I appreciated that. But does that change his guilt? I say no."
There was some disagreement among Republican members of the committee about Nixon's motives. Rep. Carlos Moorhead (R-Calif.) said he believes Nixon's motives were "not to let off criminals but to protect his friends and aides."
But Cohen observed: "It's somewhat ironic that Mr. Nixon said he was only trying to protect Mr. Haldeman and Mr. Ehrlichman. They were engaged in the conspiracy to protect Mr. Nixon."
Dennis said that Nixon was entitled to his say, but thought it was "sort of a sad spectacle to see the ex-President do it more or less commercially, for money. . ."
Some Republicans thought that Nixon should not have appeared on the programs at all.
"In Mr. Nixon's admission of exercising poor judgements, I would include his judgement in agreeing to participate in that program with David Frost," said Rep. Robert McClory (R-Ill.). "He subjected himself to prosecution on TV. Frost was a clever, well-prepared prosecutor, and Nixon seemed defensive, contrite and apologetic. In my opinion he was not very convincing."
Rep. Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.), the chairman of the committee, also expressed a critical view.
"It made me sad to see a President of the United States trying one way or the other to explain away the facts," Rodino said. "You can't rewrite history."
Another Democrat who played a prominent role in Nixon's downfall expressed a charitable view of Nixon, while insisting that the former President still was covering up.
Reporters jammed into a hotel room in Charlotte, N.C., to watch former Sen. Sam J. Ervin Jr. (D-N.C.) listen to a replay of the Frost interview. Ervin had been flying back to North Carolina at the time interview was broadcast.
Afterward, the former chairman of the Seanta Watergate committee said that "even a partial confession was good for the soul," and said he thought that Nixon had made as much of a confession as he was able to.
"I have a great deal of compassion for him," Ervin said. "I also have a great deal of compassion for the millions of young people who lost confidence in our government,"
Ervin dismissed Nixon's statement of motivations with the comment that, "I learned in law school that people intend the natural consequences of their acts."