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

By Gladys Engel Lang; Kurt Lang | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 11
PUBLIC OPINION AND THE RESOLUTION OF CRISIS

To clarify the role of public opinion in the resolution of controversy, we now introduce a comparative perspective. Watergate is not entirely without precedent. The cases we use are broadly similar controversies, only some of which led to full-blown crises of confidence. Each began with the discovery of serious transgressions by persons of high prestige, at or near the top of government. Yet some cut more deeply than others, because the individual or institution "on trial" symbolized the nation and should have been beyond reproach. Through their derelictions, each in his own way put into jeopardy the legitimacy claims of the constitutional order, but in each case, the resultant crisis was decisively terminated without any basic institutional change. And, as with Watergate, the outcome was accepted with a calm that belied the acrimony of the controversy, though public acquiescence could hardly have been taken for granted beforehand.


RESIGNATIONS AT THE TOP

We begin by looking at several cases in which crisis was averted and potential political fallout quickly diffused by the uncontested resignation of the person at the center of the controversy.


Filbinger

First, there is the case of Karl Hans Filbinger, who was the Prime Minister of the West German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg. It illustrates how moral indignation, aroused by the news media, can force a popular and respected leader out of office.

Filbinger gave up his post on August 7, 1978, six months after an article by Rolf Hochhuth was published in Der Spiegel, a weekly news magazine with a reputation for muckraking journalism. It accused him of excessive severity, as a wartime judge for the German navy, in prosecuting and sen

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