Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, but the great majority of Americans have not.
By a ratio of more than 7 to 1, citizens believe that Nixon was guilty of wrongdoing in the scandal that began with the Watergate break-in arrests 10 years ago today. And by a ratio of more than 2 to 1, the public feels that the former president should be allowed no future role in national affairs.
Many Americans believe nevertheless that what Nixon did was no worse than what other presidents have done--that Watergate was politics as usual. But on that question and a number of others, people are divided along political lines, with Republicans far less critical of Nixon than are Democrats.
These are among the chief findings of a nationwide Washington Post-ABC News poll marking the anniversary of the June 17, 1972, arrests at Democratic National Committee headquarters that led to Nixon's forced resignation 26 months later.
In the survey, more than one-third said they believe it very likely that a new Watergate-type scandal could erupt in American politics. An even higher proportion said they feel a repeat of Watergate is at least somewhat likely. Only one person in five said that such extensive high-level corruption is not at all likely to recur.
By 56 to 35 percent, according to the poll, citizens feel that Nixon should have gone on trial for his role in the Watergate affair. Strikingly, those figures are almost identical to those in Gallup polls of July and August, 1974, just before and after Vice President Ford became president and pardoned Nixon, ending the possibility of an indictment and trial.
The new poll shows citizens evenly divided over the pardon: 45 percent believe Ford did the right thing in granting it, 47 percent feel he was wrong. Many political observers say public resentment of the pardon cost Ford the election in 1976, when he was narrowly defeated by Jimmy Carter.
Ford himself said recently that he feels the pardon probably had "an adverse impact" on his chances.
In all, 75 percent of those interviewed by The Post and ABC News said that Nixon was guilty of wrongdoing and that he took part in the Watergate cover-up. Only 10 percent said he was not guilty, and 15 percent expressed no opinion. On this matter, there was little difference among Democrats, Republicans and Independents.
But in comparing Nixon's deeds and those of other presidents, the people are sharply split by political affiliation.
By 51 to 35, Democrats interviewed agreed with the statement that "what Nixon did in the Watergate affair was worse than what other presidents have done." By 67 to 23, on the other hand, Republicans interviewed agreed with the statement that "other presidents engaged in the same kind of activities that forced Nixon out of office."
The same partisan divisions apply, but to a lesser extent, on whether citizens envision a return for Nixon to public life. Question:
"In the event that he could, do you think Richard Nixon should have a future role in national affairs or not?" Overall response: he should, 28 percent; he should not, 64 percent.
Among Republicans, 53 percent opposed a Nixon return and 38 percent were in favor. But Democrats op-posed it 76 percent to 16 percent, or more than 4 to 1, and Independents opposed it by 2 to 1.
By a narrow 6-point margin, 47 to 41 percent, Republicans in the survey said it was proper that Nixon was not put on trial. But the overwhelming majority of Democrats--67 to 26 percent--said he should have been tried, as did 57 percent of Independents.
Similarly, 62 percent of Republicans interviewed said Ford was right in issuing the pardon and 29 percent said he was wrong. Democrats' sentiment was almost exactly the reverse: 60 percent against, 32 percent for the pardon. Independents were evenly divided.
A total of 1,018 people were interviewed in the survey. It was conducted from May 24 to 28.