June 9, 2019

ONLY GETTING STARTED:

How the Watergate crisis eroded public support for Richard Nixon (ANDREW KOHUT, 8/08/14, Pew Research)

The televised Watergate hearings that began in May 1973, chaired by Senator Samuel Ervin, commanded a large national audience -- 71% told Gallup they watched the hearings live. And as many as 21% reported watching 10 hours or more of the Ervin proceedings. Not too surprisingly, Nixon's popularity took a severe hit. His ratings fell as low as 31%, in Gallup's early August survey. 

The public had changed its view of the scandal. A 53% majority came to the view that Watergate was a serious matter, not just politics, up from 31% who believed that before the hearings. Indeed, an overwhelming percentage of the public (71%) had come to see Nixon as culpable in the wrongdoing, at least to some extent. About four-in-ten (37%) thought he found out about the bugging and tried to cover it up; 29% went further in saying that he knew about the bugging beforehand, but did not plan it; and 8% went all the way, saying he planned it from beginning to end. Only 15% of Americans thought that the president had no prior knowledge and spoke up as soon as he learned of it.

Yet, despite the increasingly negative views of Nixon at that time, most Americans continued to reject the notion that Nixon should leave office, according to Gallup. Just 26% thought he should be impeached and forced to resign, while 61% did not.

A lot of key scandal events were to follow that year and into 1974, but public opinion about Watergate was slow to change further, despite the high drama of what was taking place. For example, October 1973 was a crucial month as the courts ruled that the president had to turn over his taped conversations to special prosecutor Archibald Cox, and subsequently Nixon ordered for the dismissal of Cox in what came to be known as the Saturday Night Massacre. The public reacted, but in a measured way. In November, Gallup showed the percentage of Americans thinking that the president should leave office jumping from 19% in June to 38%, but still, 51% did not support impeachment and an end to Nixon's presidency.

In the spring of 1974, despite the indictment of top former White House aides, and Nixon's release of what were seen as "heavily edited" transcripts of tapes of his aides plotting to get White House enemies, the public was still divided over what to do about the president. For example, by June, 44% in the Gallup Poll thought he should be removed from office, while 41% disagreed.

Only in early August, following the House Judiciary Committee's recommendation in July that Nixon be impeached and the Supreme Court's decision that he surrender his audio tapes, did a clear majority - 57% - come to the view that the president should be removed from office.


Posted by at June 9, 2019 10:15 AM

  

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