AT ITS SIMPLEST, most tangible level, Watergate was nothing more than dirty politics. A gang of officeholders, unsure of their chances of winning the next election, set out through illegal means to shift the odds in their favor. Such behavior, however deplorable, has never been particularly unusual in American politics--is, in fact, common in many large cities, and present in many states.
There were, of course, certain distinguishing qualities about Watergate, even when it remained a "third-rate burglary" committed on the offices of the Democratic National Committee. For one thing, the prize at stake was the presidency of the United States. For another, among those participating in the meetings at which the crime was planned, or holding prior knowledge that it was to be committed, were the attorney general of the United States and members or former members of the White House staff. Finally, and most important in terms of immediate consequences, the burglars got caught; and one of them, under pressure from a ruthless and implacable "law and order" judge (just the kind Nixon most admired), proved willing to implicate the higher-ups.
Even at this point, Watergate, so long as nothing more than the planning and execution of the break-in was involved, would hardly have destroyed the Nixon administration or entered history as much more than an anecdote of bad judgment and low conduct in high places. If Nixon and his chief lieutenants had in no way interfered with the investigation and prosecution of the case after the Watergate burglars were arrested on the night of June 17, 1972, the costs to the