No one paid much attention when news first broke of the burglary on June 17, 1972, at the Watergate hotel-office-apartment complex in Washington, D.C.
Five men wearing business suits and surgical gloves were caught trespassing early that morning on the sixth-floor headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. It turned out it wasn't the first time they'd broken in: Three weeks earlier, the men had secretly installed wiretaps on the office phones, and they were repairing the bugs when they got caught.
At first the media didn't take the burglary too seriously--The New York Times ran its story on page 30--and the White House dismissed the break-in as "just a third-rate burglary attempt."
Though the break-in was quickly linked to President Richard Nixon's reelection committee, it would take many months before a number of crucial players-including the FBI, journalists, congressional investigators, and prosecutors--would begin to piece together the truth: that the incident was part of a larger conspiracy of spying, payoffs, coverups, and other criminal abuses of executive power. Forty years later, the Watergate affair and Nixon's subsequent resignation--the only presidential resignation in U.S. history--still stands as the greatest scandal in American politics.
"It was a dreadful time in our history, and it had very negative effects," says Marc Landy, a political science professor at Boston College. "It was one of the important factors in undermining Americans' trust in government."
When Nixon was running for president in 1968, the entire country seemed on fire. In April, race riots broke out across American cities following the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee. In June, Senator Robert Kennedy of New York, one of the front-runners for the Democratic nomination for President, was assassinated in Los Angeles. And all year, crowds of students and young people took to the streets to protest the increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam.
Nixon promised to restore order to the country and defeated his Democratic opponent, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, in the '68 election. But he was frustrated to find the Democrats, who controlled both houses of Congress, blocking many of his initiatives. In 1972, Nixon's re-election committee, led by his close political associates, was determined to end the gridlock by winning a decisive victory and sweeping Republican majorities into Congress. They launched an aggressive campaign against their Democratic opponents, in some cases crossing the line between legitimate political tactics and criminal activity.
When rumors began to circulate that the White House might have played a role in the break-in, Nixon immediately denied them.
"No one in this administration, presently employed, was involved in this very bizarre incident," he said at a press conference in August. "This kind of activity, as I have often indicated, has no place whatever in our political process."
Most Americans took his word for it. In November, Nixon trounced his Democratic opponent, Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, winning reelection with 61 percent of the vote to McGovern's 38 percent.
On Jan. 30, 1973, just 10 days after Nixon's inauguration, the five Watergate burglars pleaded guilty in a district court in Washington, D.C., and two others were convicted for planning the break-in. But thanks in part to the persistence of two young reporters at The Washington Post named Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the story didn't end there.
Unlike much of the media, Woodward and Bernstein stayed on the Watergate story after the break-in. They wrote more than 200 articles in the first six months and...