Nixon's Image Remains Negative 25 Years After Watergate

by Frank Newport

Almost half of Americans think that Watergate was "just politics," however


PRINCETON, NJ -- August 9 marks the 25th anniversary of Richard Nixon's forced resignation in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Gallup polling conducted since that time, including a just-completed early August survey, suggests that the stigma of Watergate lives on. Nixon continues to reign in the minds of Americans as the worst president of the last half-century, despite the fact that almost half of the public says the Watergate affair was "just politics."

Nixon was in bad shape in the eyes of the public just before his resignation. An early August 1974 Gallup poll showed Nixon with a job approval rating of only 24%, just two points above the all-time lowest number measured by Gallup for any president before or since -- the 22% recorded for Harry Truman in the winter of 1952. Despite the temptation to ascribe all of Nixon's problems to Watergate, however, it was clear at the time that his low standing was not just Watergate-related. The U.S. economy was in terrible shape, and by early 1974 there were long gas lines in many parts of the country as a result of an energy crisis. As Gallup analysts noted in assessing Nixon in 1974 after his resignation: "By early 1973, in the grip of what was to become a 'double-digit' inflation rate, the economy and high cost of living were far and away the biggest concern of the American people."

Still, Watergate was the obvious factor that brought Nixon down. In a Gallup poll conducted just before his resignation, 57% of Americans said that Nixon's behavior in relationship to Watergate was so egregious that it warranted his being removed from office, an action that was forestalled by his August 9 resignation.

Now, some 25 years later, Gallup polling suggests that Nixon, for the most part, was unable to overcome the stigma of Watergate despite his best efforts in the years between 1974 and his death in 1994.

Only 22% of Americans now say that Nixon will go down in history as outstanding or above average, while 41% say that he will go down in history as a below-average or poor president. Thirty-five percent say he will be seen as average. Nixon's retrospective positive standing is significantly below that of other presidents such as Jimmy Carter -- 39% -- and Bill Clinton -- 36%. Nixon's negative image exceeds that of the next highest contender in that category, Bill Clinton, by 10 percentage points.

Additionally, in a February 1999 poll, 28% of Americans said that Nixon was the worst of the 10 presidents the U.S. has had since World War II. The results of that poll, however, were not quite as negative for Nixon as one conducted 13 years ago. Nixon's 28% "worst" percentage is down from the 34% who chose Nixon as the worst president in a 1986 poll, when he just barely edged out Jimmy Carter, who got 29% of the "worst" president nod. Now, it is Bill Clinton who comes in second behind Nixon, with 21% of the "worst" vote.

Watergate Still Remembered by Majority of Americans
Despite the passage of time, the Watergate scandal remains top-of-mind for the majority of the American public. About two-thirds -- 65% -- say that they are still at least somewhat familiar with the Watergate affair. Americans 50-64 years of age, who would have been 25-39 at the time of his resignation, are most likely to be familiar with Watergate, while only 43% of young Americans aged 18-29, the oldest of whom were only 4 years old at the time of the resignation, say they are familiar with it.

Americans' specific attitudes about Watergate some 25 years later are mixed.

  • Seventy-two percent of Americans say, looking back, that the charges against Nixon were serious enough to warrant his resignation, while 23% say that they were not. Interestingly, after his resignation in 1974, when the same question was asked, 65% of Americans said they felt that Watergate was serious enough to warrant his resignation. In short, the public has become somewhat more harsh in its judgement over time, rather than less so.
  • At the same time, however, about half of Americans are willing to agree that Watergate was just politics. Fifty-one percent say that Watergate "was a very serious matter because it revealed corruption in the Nixon administration," while 46% say that it was "just politics."

When Americans are asked in a separate question to compare the Nixon scandal with the more recent Clinton scandal, 54% say that the charges against Nixon were more serious than were those against Clinton, while only 14% say that the charges against Clinton were more serious. Twenty-nine percent of Americans say the charges against the two men were equally serious. Nixon "wins" on this dubious measure even among Republicans, 34% of whom say that the charges against Nixon were more serious. Twenty-four percent of Republicans say the charges against Clinton were worse than were those against Nixon, while 40% say that the seriousness of the charges against the two men was equal.

Survey Methods
The results below are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,048 adults, 18 years and older, conducted August 3-4, 1999. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus 3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

How familiar are you with the Watergate affair during the Nixon administration? Would you say you are very familiar, somewhat familiar, not too familiar, or not at all familiar with Watergate?

Very Somewhat Not too Not at all No opinion
99 Aug 3-4 21% 44% 22% 13% *%
97 May 30-Jun 1 17 46 25 11 1
92 Jun 4-8 18 47 24 11 *

It has now been 25 years since Richard Nixon resigned as president over the Watergate controversy. Which of these two statements comes closer to your own point of view about Watergate? It was a very serious matter because it revealed corruption in the Nixon administration; or it was just politics -- the kind of thing both parties engage in?

Very serious Just politics No opinion
99 Aug 3-4 51% 46% 3%
97 May 30-Jun 1 52 44 4
92 Jun 4-8 49 46 5
82 June 52 45 3

Thinking back to Watergate, do you think Nixon's actions regarding Watergate were, or were not, serious enough to warrant his resignation?

Yes, serious enough No, not serious enough No opinion
99 Aug 3-4 72% 23% 5%
97 May 30-Jun 1 68 26 6
92 Jun 4-8 70 21 9
86 May (¨) 71 24 5
82 June 75 19 6
74 Aug 65 32 3

(¨) Gallup/Newsweek

Finally, comparing the impeachment charges against Bill Clinton over the Lewinsky controversy with the charges against Richard Nixon in the Watergate controversy, which do you think were more serious: [ROTATE 1-2-3/2-1-3: 1) The charges against Richard Nixon, 2) The charges against Bill Clinton, 3) or do you think the charges against both men were about equally serious]?

98 Oct 6-7 99 Aug 3-4
Nixon charges more serious 64% 54%
Clinton charges more serious 10 14
Equally serious 23 29
No opinion 3 3
100% 100%

* less than 0.5%

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