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 7
TELEVISION AS AN AGENT
OF LEGITIMATION
The House Judiciary Committee

With the nation watching on television, the House Judiciary Committee began its final impeachment deliberations on the evening of Wednesday, July 24, 1974. By the time these ended, on July 30, the committee had approved three articles of impeachment against Richard M. Nixon. Developments the following week made it evident to nearly everyone, including the President, that the House would follow the Committee recommendations and that conviction by the Senate on one or more counts was a near certainty. Rather than face such an ordeal, Nixon chose to resign.

Without the live coverage of the impeachment proceedings, would the Watergate controversy have ended as it did and when it did? Would the same groundswell of pro-impeachment sentiment have developed both in Washington and in the rest of the country? Would there have been the same quiet, unchallenged acceptance of resignation had not the debate over the impeachment articles been televised in full?

The answer to all these questions must be "no." Without the televised debates, the political scenario could have been quite different. The evidence shows that, as the debate began, many members of the public and of Congress had yet to be convinced that there were any but political grounds for impeachment. The telecasts changed few opinions about the extent of Nixon's complicity in Watergate or whether he was guilty of offenses sufficient to warrant his removal from office. Yet there was a perceptible increase in the number of people who accepted the need for impeachment proceedings. This was because impeachment had come to be defined by more and more people as derived from a legal mandate, with the outcome determined by the inexorable logic of the facts. Consequently, when the "smoking gun," buried in the June 23 tape, gave proof of the President's guilt only days after the debate ended, even those who had remained confident that a Senate

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