WATERGATE: The Public: Disillusioned

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Felon's Lair. "I know America," Richard Nixon said in 1970, "and the American heart is good." Now he must contend with millions of Americans who believe that they have at last peered into Richard Nixon's heart. The outrage expressed at the tapes is above all a moral anger, and Nixon, who has so often appealed to American morality in the past, is feeling the fury of a nation that is still extraordinarily idealistic about its Government, especially the presidency. "It is a fundamental law of American politics," writes Political Analyst Michael Novak, "that whoever speaks with the power of morality on his side gains enormous practical power." With the publication of the transcripts, Nixon may have lost that power.

Said William P. Thompson, chief executive of the United Presbyterian Church: "It is almost as if the public has been admitted to the most private plotting within a felon's lair." To Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the presidential conversations "reek with the stench of moral decay." The Rev. Foy Valentine, head of the Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission, described the tone of the conversations as "utterly reprehensible, made worse by the fact that there had been such a pretense of piety." Nixon's friend, the Rev. Billy Graham, refrained from criticism, but remarked: "I think he will put what's best for the country above everything else." Graham added his homily: "The Lord is listening all the time. The Lord has got his tape recorder going from the time you're born until you die."

Nixon still seemed to enjoy his greatest continuing support among Southern conservatives and Wallaceites, with their abiding distrust of the Eastern press and television networks. Politics aside, John D. Tollerson, a management psychologist in Atlanta, said: "There is nothing immoral in his conversation as far as I know. I resent the furor and moral indignations raised by his opportunistic opponents. [Expletive deleted], lots of people swear." In Vicksburg, Miss., Mrs. Ronnie Forsythe argued that "the media acts as judges and won't let people think for themselves."

Too Tough. Such charges were echoed by Nixon supporters elsewhere. Said George A. Vossler, chairman of the Erie County, N.Y., Conservative Party: "So far, Nixon has been judged by television and the news media." Frank DiGennaro, a Baltimore photographer, insisted flatly: "I still consider Nixon this country's greatest President. His enemies never cease trying to tear him down, but you watch. He'll be too tough for them."

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