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Gallup Vault: A Pardon That Took a Decade to Forgive

Gallup Vault: A Pardon That Took a Decade to Forgive

In early September 1974, the same week President Gerald Ford granted former President Richard Nixon a full pardon for his actions in the Watergate affair, Americans were more in favor of prosecuting Nixon for crimes he may have committed in Watergate (58%) than letting him off the hook with a pardon (38%).

In 1974, Americans Wanted Richard Nixon Tried, Not Pardoned
Yes, should No,  should not No opinion
% % %
Do you think Nixon should or should not be tried for possible criminal charges arising from Watergate? 58 36 6
If Nixon is brought to trial and found guilty, do you think he should or should not be granted a pardon by President Ford? 38 53 9
Gallup, Sept. 6-9, 1974

Watergate refers to what The Washington Post has called "a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage conducted on behalf of the Nixon re-election effort" that came to light after a break-in at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., in 1972. It led to the resignation and imprisonment of several members of Nixon's staff and eventually brought down Nixon's presidency because of his participation in a criminal cover-up of the matter.

The poll was conducted Sept. 6-9, 1974, with most of the interviews occurring before Ford's Sept. 8 Oval Office speech to the nation, in which he announced his decision to pardon Nixon. Nixon had officially resigned from office a month earlier, on Aug. 9, as Congress was preparing articles of impeachment against him.

U.S. attitudes at the time about the fallen president's fate were partisan, but not overly so. Fifty-six percent of Nixon's fellow Republicans did not want him to face criminal charges, but a sizable minority -- 38% -- thought he should. And while just over two-thirds of Democrats favored trying Nixon, about a quarter were opposed.

Similarly, about half of Republicans (51%) thought Ford should pardon the former president, and 34% of Democrats agreed.

1974 Views on President Nixon's Fate, by Party ID
Republicans Independents Democrats
% % %
Should Nixon be tried for possible criminal charges?
Yes 38 60 68
No 56 34 27
No opinion 6 5 6
Should Nixon be granted a pardon by President Ford?
Yes 51 32 34
No 40 59 56
No opinion 8 9 10
Gallup, Sept. 6-9, 1974

Ford paid a steep price for the pardon in the court of public opinion. His approval rating dropped from 71% at the end of his first week as president in mid-August 1974 to 66% in the same early September poll in which Gallup found Americans opposed to the pardon. It declined to 50% later that month and tumbled further from there, reaching 37% in January and March 1975. And while it recovered somewhat the following year, that was not enough to buttress Ford's re-election bid, which he narrowly lost to Jimmy Carter in 1976.

In the months leading up to the election, public opinion about the pardon hadn't budged, with 55% still believing Ford had done the wrong thing. Gallup's next reading in 1982 found Americans evenly split at 46% over whether he had done the right or the wrong thing.

Some consolation came a few years later, in 1986, when Gallup first found a majority of Americans (54%) saying Ford had done the right thing in granting Nixon a pardon.

Ten years after the pardon, in 1984, the 38th president still grappled with his decision, telling CBS News that "the political fallout was far more serious than I contemplated."

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