Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

It was famously described by the White House press secretary as a “third-rate burglary,” but it brought down a presidency. On the night of June 17, 1972, five men were arrested for allegedly breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in an office and hotel complex whose name has become synonymous with political scandal: the Watergate.

Over the course of more than two years — driven by relentless digging by two young Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein; a tough-minded federal judge, John J. Sirica, and ultimately by a congressional investigation whose hearings riveted the nation — the break-in was linked to President Nixon’s reelection campaign, and the subsequent coverup traced to the Oval Office itself.

Impeachment proceedings were begun by the House Judiciary Committee in July, 1974, and a few weeks later, his support in the Senate collapsing, Richard Nixon became the first president in American history to resign. (Jerry Adler for Yahoo News)

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Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

President Nixon tells a White House news conference that he will not allow his legal counsel, John Dean, to testify on Capitol Hill in the Watergate investigation, and challenged the Senate to test him in the Supreme Court on March 15, 1973. A feisty Nixon defended his shredded legacy and Watergate-era actions in grand jury testimony that he thought would never come out. On Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011, it did. (Photo: Charles Tasnadi/AP)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

Democratic National Committee office in the luxurious Watergate complex in Washington, shown April 20, 1973. (Photo: AP)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

Washington Post writers Carl Bernstein, left, and Robert Woodward, who pressed the Watergate investigation, in Washington, D.C., on May 7, 1973. (Photo: AP)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

U.S. District Court Judge John Sirica in his office in Washington on Jan. 31, 1973. (Photo: AP)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

The trial of the “Watergate Seven,” the men accused of bugging the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in June, 1972, opened in Washington, D.C., on Jan 8, 1973. Shown arriving, left to right, are: Virgilio Gonzales; Henry Rothblatt, attorney; Bernard Baker; Frank Sturgis; and Eugenio Martinez. The woman is unidentified. (Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

Three of the seven defendents — including G. Gordon Liddy, center — charged in connection with the break-in and alleged bugging of Democratic headquarters arrive at U.S. District Court for the start of their trial on Jan. 8, 1973. The other men are unidentified. (Photo: AP)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

Rose Mary Woods, President Richard Nixon’s secretary, is shown at her White House desk in 1973, demonstrating the “Rose Mary Stretch,” which could have resulted in the erasure of part of the Watergate tapes. (Photo: AP)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

Former U.S. Attorney General John N. Mitchell reads newspaper front page headline, “Indict 6 Nixon Plumbers,” in his car as he leaves U.S. District Court in New York City on March 7, 1973. Mitchell was on trial for criminal conspiracy in the Watergate scandal. (Photo: Ray Stubblebine/AP)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

Daniel Ellsberg, co-defendant in the Pentagon Papers case, talks to news reporters outside the Federal Building in Los Angeles on Friday, April 28, 1973, after the judge in the case released a government memorandum saying G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt, convicted Watergate conspirators, had burglarized the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. Ellsberg called it another instance of “political espionage.” (Photo: Wally Fong/AP)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

Republican Party chairman George Bush calls a meeting of the Republican National Committee in Washington, April 26, 1973. He said he was still confident that President Richard Nixon was not involved in any of the Watergate scandals. Bush said, “if I did not have confidence that President Nixon is telling the truth on Watergate, I would not stand here in this posture.” (Photo: Bob Daugherty/AP)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

The president’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, talks with newsmen on April 30, 1973, at the White House where he announced the president’s descision to accept the resignations of Attorney General Richard G. Kleindienst and White House aides H.R. Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman in a shakeup stemming from the Watergate affair. He also announced the firing of White House counsel John Dean III. (Photo: AP)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

Charles W. Colson, shown during an interview 1973, is a striking example of the proud and powerful men of Richard Nixon’s White House who were humbled before prosecutor Leon Jaworski and the courts of Watergate. (Photo: The Washington Post/Getty Images)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

Martha Mitchell carries a worn Bible as she makes her way through a throng of newsmen to give a deposition about the Watergate case to a lawyer in New York City on May 3, 1973. “I wouldn’t want to have to swear on a dictionary,” quipped the wife of former Attorney General John Mitchell. (Photo: AP)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

Former presidential advisor H.R. Haldeman is seen outside the new Senate office building where he appeared before a special committee investigating the Watergate matter, May 4, 1973, in Washington. (Photo: Paul Vathis/AP)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

President Richard Nixon tells Republican campaign contributors on May 9, 1973, in Washington that he will get to the bottom of the Watergate scandal, and not let it keep him from making ìthe next four years better than the last four years. (Photo: John Duricka/AP)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

Acting FBI Director William Ruckelshaus tells a Washington news conference that the missing wiretap file in the Daniel Ellsberg-Pentagon papers case has been found in a safe at the White House office of former presidential aide John Ehrlichman, May 15, 1973. (Photo: Charles Gorry/AP)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

Sen. Howard Baker, right, confers with minority counselor for the Senate Watergate Committee Fred Thompson on the steps of the Capitol, May 16, 1973. (Photo: AP)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

Frank Wills, the security guard who discovered the now infamous Watergate break-in on June 17, shown on May 16, 1973. It was Wills’ chance discovery of a piece of tape attached to a Watergate basement door latch that led to the arrest of five men in connection with the breaking into of the Democratic National Committee offices. (Photo: AP)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

Members of the Senate Watergate Investigating Committee are seen during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington as they listen to witness Robert Odle, foreground, on May 17, 1973. From left are; Sen. Lowell Weicker, R-Conn.; Sen. Edward Gurney, R-Fla.; Chief Minority Counsel Fred Thompson; Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn.; Sen. Sam Ervin, D-N.C.; chairman and chief counsel Samuel Dash; Sen. Herman Talmadge, D-Ga., Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii and Sen. Joseph Montoya, D-N.M. Thompson gained an image as a tough-minded investigative counsel for the Senate Watergate committee. Yet President Nixon and his top aides viewed the fellow Republican as a willing, if not too bright, ally, according to White House tapes. (Photo: AP)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn., vice chairman of the Senate Watergate Investigating Committee, questions witness James McCord during hearing in Washington, D.C., on May 18, 1973. (PHOTO: AP)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

Washington police officer Carl Shoffler pauses during testimony before the Senate Watergate Investigating Committee in Washington, May 18, 1973. Behind Shoffler is James McCord, the second witness who testifed at the hearing. (Photo: AP)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

Hearings of the Senate select committee on the watergate case in Washington, D.C. May 18,1973. (Photo: AP)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

Attorney General designate Elliot Richardson, right, introduced Archibald Cox, former solicitor general, to the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 21, 1973. Cox, left, told speakers that Richardson had given him “all the power needed to be independent” in his job as special Watergate prosecutor. (Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

Former FBI agent Alfred Baldwin delivers testimony May 25, 1973, on Capitol Hill to members of the Watergate committee. (Photo: AP)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

Chairman Sam Ervin, D-N.C., holds up “sensitive material” envelope on June 5, 1973, in the Senate Caucus Room during the testimony of Sally J. Harmony before the Senate Watergate Committee. Ervin asked Harmony whether she could identify the envelope, she said she could not. (Photo: AP)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

Former White House aide John Dean III is sworn in by Senate Watergate Committee Chairman Sam Ervin, D-N.C. on June 25, 1973. (Photo: AP)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

Sen. Fred Thompson, center, listens to questions during the Senate Watergate Committee in Washington, July 11, 1973. Others are unidentified. Barely aware of Watergate when he took the job, Thompson wound up being the one who publicly asked Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield whether there were any listening devices in the White House. (Photo: AP)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

Alexander Porter Butterfield, testifies Monday July 16, 1973, before the Senate Watergate Committee. (Photo: AP)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

Hillary Rodham working with a House committee on Nixon’s impeachment case (Photo: Wally McNamee/Corbis via Getty Images)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

Former White House aide John Dean III pauses while reading a prepared statement before the Senate Watergate Committee, June 25, 1973. (Photo: AP)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

Former Attorney General John N. Mitchell listens to a question during his appearance before the Senate Watergate Committee in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, July 11, 1973. (Photo: AP)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

G. Gordon Liddy, one of the seven convicted Watergate conspirators, arrives at the House Armed Services subcomittee in Washington, D.C., on July 20, 1973, to testify. (Photo: AP)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

John D. Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic affairs adviser, is sworn-in by Sen. Sam Ervin, Jr., prior to testifying before the Senate Watergate Committee on July 24, 1973. Ehrlichman was imprisoned for 18 months for his part in the Watergate conspiracy. (Photo: AP)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

Former top aide to the president H.R. Haldeman testifies before the Senate Watergate Committee in Washington for the second day, July 31, 1973. Behind Haldeman are his attorneys John J. Wilson, left, and Frank Strickler. (Photo: AP)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

Sen. Fred Thompson, third from left, listens during a hearing of the Senate Watergate Committee on Aug. 3, 1973. Testifying before the committee is Lt. Gen. Vernon Walters. (Photo: AP)Photo/Files)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

President Nixon after delivering a nationwide television address dealing with Watergate. Nixon repeated that he had no prior knowledge of the Watergate break-in and was not aware of any coverup. (Photo: AP)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

E. Howard Hunt speaks to a question from the counsel for the Senate Watergate Committee, Sept. 24, 1973. Hunt, a former agent with the Central Intelligence Agency, was a convicted Watergate conspirator. (Photo: AP)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

Vice President Spiro Agnew the day after resigning his office, October 10, 1973, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

Special Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox talks to media outside the U.S. District Court in Washington after ousted White House counsel John W. Dean III pleaded guilty to conspiring to obstruct the Watergate investigation on Oct. 19, 1973. (Photo: AP)

Democracy’s darkest moment: the Watergate scandal

Ralph Nader announces that he will seek court action challenging the firing of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, October 22, 1973. (Photo: AP)

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