The Battle for Public Opinion: The President, the Press, and the Polls during Watergate

By Gladys Engel Lang; Kurt Lang | Go to book overview

CHAPRER 1
OVERTURNING A LANDSLIDE From Reelection to Resignation

On the evening of November 7, 1972, Richard M. Nixon was reelected President by a landslide, losing only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. The vote was a clear reflection of public opinion, yet when Nixon quit the Presidency less than two years later, most Americans approved. According to every poll estimate, no more than two of every ten Americans, and possibly as few as one in ten, were unhappy with the outcome, and even this minority, while somewhat disillusioned, accepted the resignation as inevitable and necessary. Few were bitter or vengeful. Indeed, seldom except for national emergencies has there been a greater display of national unity than when Nixon took the unprecedented step of resigning the Presidency of the United States.

This almost universal approval of such an extraordinary turn of events is itself extraordinary. The legitimacy of the Presidential changeover could have been open to serious challenge. After all, his successor was Gerald Ford, picked by Nixon himself to succeed Spiro Agnew, who had been forced to resign in disgrace from the office of Vice President. Ford had been one of Nixon's staunchest defenders almost to the very end. Nor were people as enthusiastic or unanimous in their support for Ford as media reporting implied. His approval rating just after he took office was 71 percent according to Gallup--a percentage below that of Lyndon Johnson (79) and Harry Truman (87) after their sudden elevations from the Vice Presidency under equally extraordinary circumstances. 1

Throughout the long months of controversy over Watergate, there was constant talk in and by the press of a "nation torn apart." Both Richard Nixon in resigning and Gerald Ford on taking office had stressed the need to "heal the wounds" of a nation divided by a shattering political scandal. Yet, contrary to some dire predictions, the unprecedented succession did not provoke the constitutional crisis some had feared. There was continuity. Foreign relations remained unimpaired. Even more noteworthy was the

-1-

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