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

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

CHAPTER 4
HOW WATERGATE MADE THE
PUBLIC AGENDA

A half year after Richard Nixon's landslide victory, Watergate had become the center of a full-blown political controversy. Nearly everybody was aware of it, and many more people were now taking to considering it an "important problem."

Public awareness of "Watergate" had risen from 52 percent in late September 1972 to 83 percent by early April 1973. This near-saturation level of awareness, which Gallup found when it resumed polling on Watergate five months after the election, may actually have been reached as early as mid-February. 1 At any rate, by the middle of April, the awareness figure stood at 91 percent and climbed to 96 percent by mid-May, just before the Senate Watergate Committee was about to begin its public hearings (May 17).

Along with growing awareness had come growing concern. Even before these hearings, Watergate had made its way, for the first time, onto the Gallup list of "most important problems facing the country today." Though clearly still lagging behind such low-threshold issues as "the high cost of living," mentioned as a concern by 62 percent of adult Americans, "Watergate and/or corruption in government," named by 16 percent, was in close competition with "crime and lawlessness" (17%) and on a par with "drugs" (also 16%), two matters apt to impinge more directly on the day-to-day lives of citizens. 2

As late as March 25 a New York Times editorial had despaired of what it called the "monumental apathy" of Americans in the face of this serious trend in corruption. Yet, the number of people willing to play ostrich and simply write the whole matter off as "just more politics," though still a plurality, had been steadily dwindling, and the number for whom the "bugging attempt" was "really something serious" had been going up correspondingly. Two national polls came up with similar findings in April: only about half the nation still believed Watergate to be "just politics," the kind of thing

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