Friday, August 15, 2014

Nixon: The Public Said Out

The architecture of Richard Nixon’s downfall and resignation had many protagonists: judges, lawyers, legislators, the media, his opponents and a final shove from his party. But, it was public opinion that shifted in 24 months from his landslide 1972 re-election victory over George McGovern to his party’s massive defeat in the 1974 midterm election that drove him from office and provided the definitive judgment on his performance.

Public opinion moved swiftly as the story unfolded. Gallup’s April 9, 1973 poll produced the last 50 percent approval Nixon saw, by June 23, it was the end of the 40s, at the start of December 1973, post the Agnew resignation and Saturday Night Massacre, Nixon was in the 20s, never to rise again. He left office in August 1974 at 24 percent.

As a second-year Georgetown Law student, I knew firsthand the serious legal trouble the White House was in. Sam Dash was our highest-profile professor working as chief counsel for the Senate Ervin Committee, but there were numerous others working with prosecutors and for both the Ervin and Rodino committees.

As the President’s approval was collapsing, Gallup began to ask Americans if they believed the President should be removed from office. The public came to collective decision for removal slowly. The October 1973 Saturday Night Massacre moved the impeachment number above 30 percent, but it didn’t reach the near 50-point range until Nixon was forced to release the heavily redacted tape transcripts in July 1974. The coup de grâce was the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling for full release of the tapes and the stampede of the political establishment, including Republicans. At that point, 57 percent of the public said they supported impeachment.

Public opinion and polling was a part of the drama of a constitutional, if unprecedented, change of government.

ABC News: Public opinion and Nixon’s downfall
Pew Research: How the Watergate crisis eroded public support for Richard Nixon

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