Most Americans Can't Explain Watergate

June 17, 2002 — -- Attention history teachers: Thirty years after the Watergate break-in set off a scandal that brought down a U.S. president, two-thirds of Americans say they're unfamiliar with the basic facts of the affair.

In a new ABCNEWS poll, 65 percent feel they don't know enough about Watergate to tell the basic facts to someone else. That's up 12 points from a poll five years ago.

While age is a factor, familiarity falls short in all age groups. Among 18- to 30-year-olds, born after the break-in, just 16 percent profess basic knowledge of the events. Familiarity rises to 34 percent of people age 31 to 44, and peaks at 50 percent among those age 45 to 60. Memory fades somewhat among those over 60.

Better-educated people are far more likely to say they know Watergate's basic facts: Fifty-six percent of college graduates report familiarity with the scandal (the only demographic group to reach a majority), compared to just 19 percent of people who haven't been to college.

And there's a big gender gap: Forty-four percent of men say they know enough about Watergate to explain it to someone else; just 25 percent of women say the same.

On June 17, 1972, five men were arrested for burglarizing the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. The Watergate break-in was traced directly to the Committee for the Re-election of the President, Richard Nixon's re-election campaign. The ensuing investigation, which uncovered acts of bribery, sabotage, illegal use of campaign funds, abuse of power and attempted obstruction of justice, resulted in the convictions of more than 30 officials and Nixon's resignation.

Most Support Resignation, Subsequent Pardon

Nearly two-thirds of Americans, 63 percent, think Nixon's actions were serious enough to warrant his resignation, about the same as it was (65 percent) the month he resigned, August 1974. It peaked at 75 percent in a 1982 poll. In this poll, among those who express familiarity with the scandal, it jumps to 77 percent.

Republicans are a bit more forgiving of Nixon, a fellow Republican, but 58 percent still say Watergate warranted his resignation. That jumps to 71 percent of Democrats.

At the same time though, most, 59 percent, think Gerald Ford did the right thing in granting Nixon a pardon from criminal charges arising out of Watergate. This number has grown steadily with time. Less than two years after the pardon, just 35 percent supported it; by 1986, it was 54 percent.

Those who know the details of the scandal are even more likely to support Ford's pardon than those who don't — 67 percent to 55 percent. Seventy percent of conservative Republicans say Ford did the right thing; that falls to 47 percent of liberal Democrats.


This ABCNEWS poll was conducted by telephone June 7-9 among a random national sample of 1,004 adults. The results have a three-point error margin. Field work was done by TNS Intersearch of Horsham, Pa.

Previous ABCNEWS polls can be found in our Poll Vault.