PARSIPPANY, N.J. — Former President Richard M. Nixon, who was driven out of office by the Watergate scandal, today described the Iran- contra controversy as "a sideshow" and said it is time for critics of President Reagan to "get off his back."
Nixon's comments were made during a closed-door meeting with Republican governors that lasted more than an hour.
"He said we shouldn't weaken the President," Gov. Victor G. Atiyeh of Oregon reported.
John Taylor, Nixon's administrative assistant, said the former President has talked to Reagan as recently as last Saturday. He did not give details of the conversation other than to say that Nixon urged Reagan to root for the New York Giants in their game the next day with the Washington Redskins.
The governors' session with Nixon was arranged before the disclosures of the secret arms sales to Iran and the funneling of money to the Nicaraguan rebels.
Nixon referred to Watergate, telling the governors he had noted in his memoirs that the scandal that forced him from office in 1974 was handled "abysmally."
Gov. Dick Thornburgh of Pennsylvania said Nixon indicated he thought Reagan was doing a better job handling the current controversy than was done in the Watergate scandal.
"He left that impression, definitely," said Thornburgh, adding, "He wasn't handing out report cards."
Most of the session was devoted to Nixon's views on relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, a presentation described by several governors as "brilliant."
Gov. John H. Sununu of New Hampshire said that Iran came up "only in passing" and that Nixon expressed concern that the controversy could impair Reagan's ability to deal with more important issues.
Roger Stone, a Washington political consultant associated with Nixon, said Nixon told the governors: "This can be viewed like a circus. We must not look at the sideshow, we must look instead at the main ring, which is the question of Soviet-American relations and peace in the world."
Stone said Nixon also said it was "time to get off (Reagan's) back so that the President not lose two precious years in the quest for peace."