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Buffeted by modern malfeasance, few see Watergate as watershed

June 16, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Far from the front pages but not yet a footnote, America’s towering political scandal is primarily remembered as just another piece of dirty business _ where the president happened to get caught.

Watergate’s imprint is fading 25 years later.

Nothing else has reached so far as to bring down a president. But by now, Watergate reaches so far back that a solid majority of Americans believe it was little worse than Washington scandals since, an Associated Press poll found.

Most do not hold Richard Nixon accountable for their profound lack of trust in government. It is as if the years since have been a connect-the-dots continuum of political skulduggery.

``People think it’s a dirty game, no matter how it’s played,″ said Jo Scott, 48, a piano teacher in Sioux Falls, S.D..

The poll, by ICR of Media, Pa., and interviews with several hundred other Americans by AP reporters across the country testify to the scandal’s drift in the public consciousness.

Yet, majorities agree Nixon was right to resign, the poll indicates.

Most said so, whether they see Watergate as scandal-as-usual or watershed, are Democrat or Republican, from the cynical West or the slightly more trusting East.

That sentiment was strongest among the Watergate generation and shared by a scant majority among those under 35.

``Things like Watergate happen all the time,″ contended Robert Daubert, 22, a deputy sheriff in Danbury, Conn. But Nixon needed to go, he said. ``He violated the citizens’ trust.″

That Nixon stepped down may be all that many Americans know about the chain of events that began 25 years ago Tuesday when Republican operatives broke into Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate office building.

In the poll, 56 percent of people aged 35 to 64 figured they could tell the basic story of Watergate. Only one-third of those who were children or not yet born when Watergate happened felt so equipped.

``I think everyone knows about it now because of `Forrest Gump,‴ said Beth Skivington, 19, of Fort Plain, N.Y. The hit movie touched on the scandal.

In the poll:

_68 percent said Watergate was not much worse than other Washington scandals in the last 25 years.

_62 percent said Watergate makes little difference in whether they trust government, while 31 percent said it makes them less likely to trust.

_57 percent trust the government to do what is right some of the time; 19 percent, almost never. One in five said the government can be relied on to do the right thing most of the time.

_59 percent said Nixon was right to resign.

Not everyone brushes Watergate off.

Warming her hands with a cup of coffee in downtown Spokane, Wash., Lisa Brown, 40, a state senator and college professor, recalled the impact the scandal had when she was a high school senior.

``It really shattered my illusions about government,″ she said. ``It showed me the lengths (politicians) would go to, to stay in office.″

``It was a titan,″ said Tom Krauck, 46, a teacher from Geneva, Ill., looking for work in Phoenix. ``There is simply no comparison.″

If Watergate soured its generation on politics, Krauck is an exception. He found inspiration in the congressional hearings and investigators who helped nail down the wrongdoing: ``It redoubled my faith in the system and the checks and balances.″

From Boston, attorney Mark Sullivan, 49, said Watergate set impossible standards for those who followed.

``It has bred a desire for purity in politics, when politicians aren’t meant to be perfect,″ he said.

Large majorities in the poll from every age group, income level and part of the country do not see Watergate as uniquely bad. In the interviews, people rattled off a catalogue of known or alleged malfeasance _ Iran-Contra, the savings and loan debacle, Whitewater, campaign finance wrongdoing, Travelgate, Paula Jones’ lawsuit.

``It doesn’t affect my attitude towards government, because they all do it, from the president on down,″ said Jeanne Turner, 38, a Clifton Park, N.Y., jewelry store manager.

``If you don’t see it, you need stronger glasses.″

The poll was taken May 30-June 4 among a random sample of 1,013 adult Americans interviewed by telephone in all states except Alaska and Hawaii.

The results were weighted to represent the population by key demographic factors such as age, sex, region and education. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

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