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

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

EPILOGUE

Watergate began as a narrowly political issue, the kind that often surfaces during an election campaign. A crisis of confidence developed only after it came to stand for something much more serious, for Presidential complicity in a political scandal and a continuing effort to cover up that complicity. With Watergate now a symbolic issue involving the integrity of the Presidency and the democratic values of governance, it could no longer be settled to almost everyone's satisfaction through the usual political bargaining, without recourse to the authority on which legal decisions are presumably based.

In this book we have traced the changing perceptions of the issue: what was the "crime"? who was to blame? and what was the proper punishment? We have also considered the contribution of the media to these changes in public opinion and that of public opinion to the extraordinary outcome. Based on the evidence, we reject the paranoid version of Watergate propagated by the White House that the crisis was manufactured by a hostile press which finally drove Nixon from office. But we also reject the populist view that Nixon was forced to resign because he lost his baffle for public opinion.

The moving force behind the effort to get to the bottom of Watergate came neither from the media nor public opinion but from political insiders. The conflict pitted the White House against those who, for whatever reason, wanted full disclosure of the facts behind the illegal attempt to plant wiretaps in the national headquarters of the Democratic Party. These opponents included the Democrats' chairman who, as the intended victim, sought publicity as well as redress through a civil suit; the Federal judge before whom the initial Watergate case was tried; the Senate which, prodded by the Democrats, set up a select committee to look into campaign practices; the special prosecutors appointed as political pressure mounted to clear up the case; and the House, which was about to act on the three articles of impeachment its Judiciary Committee had recommended when Nixon, by resigning, short- circuited the process.

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