Thirty years ago this Monday (June 17), what first appeared to be a minor office break-in set the stage for the greatest political scandal in American history.
A band of burglars working for President Richard Nixon's re-election committee broke into Democratic Party Headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington. The break-in and subsequent cover-up eventually forced Mr. Nixon to become the first president to resign from office and instilled a deep sense of cynicism in the American public.
At first, the Watergate scandal appeared to be a minor annoyance for President Nixon, who won a second term by a landslide in November of 1972. But as revelations emerged about White House attempts to cover up knowledge of the Watergate break-in, Richard Nixon's presidency began to unravel.
White House aide John Dean told Congress that the president himself was deeply involved in the cover-up. "I began by telling the president that there was a cancer growing on the presidency and if the cancer was not removed, the president himself would be killed by it," he said.
It was the release of White House tape recordings that eventually proved to be Richard Nixon's undoing. Revelations that he stopped the FBI from investigating the break-in undermined his support in Congress and forced him to become the first U.S. president to resign from office on August 9, 1974.
"I have never been a quitter," the president said. "To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as president, I must put the interests of America first."
Mr. Nixon's successor, Gerald Ford, immediately sought to heal the wounds of Watergate. "My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over," he said. "Our Constitution works. Our great republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here, the people rule."
But historians say the damage was already done.
"Watergate remains the most notorious, the most widespread and the best known scandal in all of American history," said Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at the American University in Washington. "The legacy of Watergate is that we have to be very, very careful to protect our basic rights as Americans and the sanctity of our political system."
In his later years, Richard Nixon sought to mute the impact of Watergate on his presidential legacy by writing books about world affairs.
But Allan Lichtman says Nixon and Watergate will be forever linked in history.
"Historians will always talk about the Alpha and the Omega of the Nixon administration," he said. "The tremendous corruption of Watergate, the twisted mind of a president who thought so often more about his own power than he did about the good of the American people. And yet on the other hand, a president who made significant breakthroughs in relations with China, in disarmament treaties with the Soviet Union, in enlightened environmental polices here at home."
In addition to prematurely ending Richard Nixon's political career, Watergate ushered in a new era of public cynicism about politicians and the trustworthiness of government.
"Well, Watergate coming right after the 'credibility gap' and all the problems of the [President Lyndon] Johnson era during Vietnam really shook deeply the faith Americans have in their government," said historian Allan Lichtman. "It was somewhat restored, ironically, after the 9-11 attacks. But I think the legacy of Watergate continues to reverberate over the generations. And I think the legacy continues to be that Americans have to be very vigilant and very careful and can't automatically trust the integrity of any public official, including the president."
The day he resigned, Richard Nixon sought to boost the spirits of White House aides who had gathered to wish him farewell. But in a twist of irony, he also touched on a weakness that supporters and detractors alike believe was a major factor in his downfall.
He said, "always give your best. Never get discouraged. Never be petty. Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them and then you destroy yourself."
Richard Nixon died on April 22, 1994, after suffering a severe stroke. He was 81 years old.