Watergate revisited: How has America changed?

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  • Polls show lasting effects of Watergate @AEIPol

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  • Nixon's approval rating when he resigned was 24% @AEIPol

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  • Roots of today's polarization in Watergate to be debated for long time to come @AEIPol

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Those of us of a certain age remember where we were on August 8, 1974, the day Richard Nixon announced he would resign the presidency. As the 40th anniversary of that momentous day approaches, it is worth taking another look at polls from that summer, as they provide some clues about current dissatisfaction with Washington. Watergate and the sea change it produced in Congress two years later when the Democrats picked up 53 seats have had lasting effects.

Around the time of the Watergate scandal, Americans had mixed feelings on Nixon’s performance in office. Seventy-one percent disapproved of the way the president was handling domestic policy, although he had positive ratings on his stewardship of foreign policy. In a Gallup poll in June, 53 percent approved on this score and only a third disapproved. In another question from Harris, however, 63 percent disagreed that the Watergate matters should be dropped and forgotten because he was doing a good job handling foreign policy. Popularity on the foreign policy front didn’t dissuade Americans from holding Nixon accountable for his involvement in Watergate.

Americans have long linked politics and corruption, and many did so in the summer of 1974. In June, 49 percent said Watergate was a very serious matter because it revealed corruption in the Nixon administration while 42 percent said the so-called scandal was just politics, the kind of thing that both parties engage in. But it soon became apparent that Watergate was more than political mischief making.

In Gallup’s polling, a bare majority, 51 percent, in May said there was enough evidence of possible wrongdoing to bring him to trial before the Senate. By early August, 65 percent gave that response, while 23 percent disagreed. In another Gallup question with a different emphasis, 48 percent in May said Nixon’s actions with regard to Watergate were serious enough to warrant his being removed from office; in early August, 57 percent gave that response.

By the time Nixon left office, he had a 24 percent approval rating. In most polls, he still ranks at or near the bottom in comparisons with other presidents. We tend to think of deep partisan polarization as a recent phenomenon, but Democrats and Republicans were deeply divided about Nixon. When he left office, half of Republicans approved of him in the August poll; only 13 percent of Democrats did. Americans initially opposed President Gerald Ford’s decision to pardon Nixon, but as years passed, most came to see the wisdom of the decision and agreed it was the right thing to do.

The Roper Organization was in the field soon after Nixon’s resignation, and the pollsters asked Americans about their views of the week’s events. Twenty-seven percent said the week was one of the darkest in the nation’s history, while 46 percent said it felt like the rebirth of the nation. Many weren’t sure. In another poll from that time, 49 percent worried a great deal and another 24 percent a fair amount about the significance of the Watergate affair in terms of our political and government system.

Watergate and Vietnam clearly sapped confidence in government institutions for a time, but it recovered smartly on three occasions: in 1984 when Americans were feeling very good about their country (a political ad for Reagan’s election declared that “it’s morning again in America”), at the end of the Clinton presidency when the economy was robust, and immediately after 9/11. Two of these coincided with strong economic growth, the third with a national tragedy.

It’s impossible to know whether the high confidence Americans appeared to have in their institutions before Watergate was itself unusual. There are only scattered polling questions from the 1950s and 1960s and no trend data before that time. Americans have always been skeptical of large powerful institutions, and government is no exception.

How much of today’s current dysfunction and polarization in Washington has its roots in Watergate is a question observers will be debate for a long time. Four distinguished observers at AEI had different views at an event last week. What’s clear from the polls from the summer of 1974 is that Americans took the momentous developments seriously, worried deeply about Watergate’s effects on the country while at the same time appreciating the resilience of our democratic system.

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Jennifer K.

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