NEW YORK — M. Caldwell Butler, who as a first-term Republican representative from Virginia wept after he voted to approve articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon, whose landslide 1972 reelection victory had propelled Mr. Butler into Congress, died Tuesday in Roanoke, Va. He was 89.
His friend Richard Cullen confirmed the death.
Mr. Butler led a group of schoolchildren in 1973 to hand Nixon a letter thanking him for ending the Vietnam War, and he and his wife had been the president’s guests in the White House family quarters. His party’s initial response to the investigation of a possible presidential coverup of the break-in at the Democratic Party’s headquarters in the Watergate complex in June 1972 had been dismissive.
But by the steamy summer of 1974, mounting evidence — including secretly made tapes of Oval Office conversations acquired by subpoena — prompted seven Republicans and three conservative Southern Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee to waver in their support of Nixon. They self-effacingly called themselves “the unholy alliance.”
From his seat on the committee, Mr. Butler on July 25, 1974, dramatically announced that he would vote for impeachment — a statement many treated as a bellwether.
“For years we Republicans have campaigned against corruption and misconduct,” he said. “But Watergate is our shame.”
Mary McGrory, a syndicated columnist, called Mr. Butler’s words “the single most fiery and liberating sentence spoken” during the Watergate investigations. “He was the first Republican to slash the comforting myth that somebody else, of unknown party origin, was to blame.”
On July 27, the Judiciary Committee voted 27 to 11 to impeach the president. Nixon resigned Aug. 9 before the full House could vote on whether to send the impeachment articles to the Senate for trial.
Mr. Butler received hate mail and bomb threats, but his stiffest opposition came from his mother, who wrote him that his future “will go down the drain if you do not stand with your party at this critical time.”
“Dear Mother,” he wrote. “You are probably right. However, I feel that my loyalty to the Republican Party does not relieve me of the obligation which I have.”
Mr. Butler nonetheless cried after the vote, he said in a 1984 interview with PBS, and called his wife, the former June Nolde, for reassurance. She died this June. Mr. Butler leaves his sons Manley, Henry, James and Marshall; seven grandchildren and two step-grandchildren.
Most of Mr. Butler’s views during his 10 years in Congress mirrored those of his conservative constituency, and he fought to prohibit an extension of the Voting Rights Act on the grounds that its restrictions were no longer needed in Virginia — a position the Supreme Court accepted earlier this year. But he favored programs to help the poor obtain legal representation and a woman’s right to have an abortion, stands many considered liberal.
“It’s not because I’m a liberal, a moderate, or a conservative, but because I’m a lawyer,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post in 1982.
In the Watergate hearings, he was called the technician for his attention to lawyerly detail.
“He was always the one saying, ‘No, you can’t use that word, it doesn’t provide for this, or let’s try the sentence this way,’ ” a lawyer who worked on drafting the articles of impeachment told The Post.
Manley Caldwell Butler, a gangly, quick-witted man, was born in Roanoke. He was descended from John Marshall, the Supreme Court justice, and served on the board of the John Marshall Foundation. His great-grandfather was James Alexander Walker, a Virginian whom Stonewall Jackson, the Confederate general, promoted to brigadier general from his deathbed.
In Congress, Mr. Butler helped win legislation restoring General Robert E. Lee’s United States citizenship, which Lee had lost when he joined the rebelling states.
“If Robert E. Lee is not worthy of being a United States citizen, then who is?” Butler said in an interview with The New York Times.
Mr. Butler served in the Navy during World War II before earning his undergraduate degree from the University of Richmond and his law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law. He then practiced law.
He was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1962, and was its minority leader from 1966 to 1971. The small band of Republicans called themselves “constructive obstructionists” for their vigorous fights against the dominant Democrats. He was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1972 and served until 1983.
Mr. Butler had no opposition in his last two congressional elections, and said he resigned to pursue the practice of law. Though he never considered himself a liberal, he was deterred from running for governor in 1984 by conservative opposition.
In 1989, President George H.W. Bush dropped a plan to appoint Mr. Butler chairman of the Legal Services Corp., which provides legal assistance to the poor, after conservatives objected.
Mr. Butler’s caustic wit showed in a 1982 hearing of a House subcommittee looking into the legal corporation. He attacked President Ronald Reagan’s appointees to the corporation’s board for charging the government consulting fees.
“I’m a Republican and we bring in these Republicans to take charge of this corporation in an effort to reform it,” he said, “and it sounds an awful lot like the first thing they do was to go and put all four feet and a snout in the trough.”