Forty years after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, observers today are re-examining how the White House, the courts and the Congress handled that crisis. An additional element worth considering is the weight of public opinion.
In January 1973, boosted by the Vietnam cease-fire, Nixon held a powerful 67 percent job approval rating in Gallup polling. By the start of that April, as the last combat troops left, but with Watergate clouds darkening, it was 57 percent. At the end of April, after Nixon took to television to announce the resignation of two of his closest (and most complicit) aides, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, it was 48 percent.
Down 19 points in three months – and counting.
By early August, with Nixon’s secret tapes disclosed and ordered released, his approval rating hit 31 percent – less than half what it had been earlier that same year. By October, and the Saturday Night Massacre, it was 27 percent, and there it stayed, more or less, for nine more painful months ’til he quit.
The likes of John Sirica, Sam Ervin and Howard Baker steered well in that storm, for sure. But it was public opinion that provided the ballast – and, I like to think, would again.