Recently, I wrote about the new movie "Frost/Nixon" and how it was reviving interest in Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal.
That's a good thing, because the lesson of Watergate is not what most people think: Richard Nixon thought he was beyond the law, he got caught, resigned and that proved that "the system worked."
That's true, but there is another lesson from Watergate: It was a very close thing. It was not inevitable that the Watergate conspiracy would get uncovered and the guilty would be punished. It was not a sure bet.
It was a combination of good luck and dumb luck and a few honest men who decided that nobody not even the president was above the law.
It started with a bungling burglar. James W. McCord Jr. was chief of security for the Republican National Committee and the Committee for the Re-election of the President. On June 17, 1972, he led a break-in of Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate office building.
McCord, a CIA veteran, was supposed to tape the door locks so the burglars could sneak in and out of the building. But McCord bungled it.
Instead of placing the tape lengthwise, so it would not show, he placed it crosswise. And when a new security guard, Frank Wills, found the tape, he called the police.
Dumb luck. And then there were two Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, neither of them famous, neither of them superstars at their own newspapers, who decided to pursue this "third rate burglary" and uncover the story of a lifetime.
And then there were the tapes. On July 13, 1973 a Friday the 13th Alexander Butterfield, a former deputy assistant to President Nixon, was being grilled in front of the Senate Watergate Committee.
A lawyer for the committee was impressed by how much detailed information was coming out of the White House. It was too detailed. So the lawyer asked Butterfield if recordings were ever made of conversations in the White House.
"I was hoping you fellows wouldn't ask me about that," Butterfield said. "Well ... yes, a recording system (was) in the president's office."
Why did Nixon keep the tapes? Everybody wondered about that. Without the tapes, Nixon would have gotten away with everything. But his vanity made him make the tapes he wanted to ensure his place in history for the good things he did. And his vanity made him keep the tapes he didn't believe anybody had the muscle to force a president to give up his own tapes.
Then there was John Sirica, chief judge of a U.S. district court. Nixon, as the "Frost/Nixon" movie shows, liked to brag about his own humble background. But Sirica was not overly impressed. Sirica had grown up in a one-room apartment behind a grocery, worked in a garage, delivered newspapers and was a prizefighter in the boxing ring both before and after getting his law degree.
He was not a legal scholar, but he believed in the majesty of the law and the simplicity of justice. And he was the man who forced Nixon to give up the tapes. "What we are after is the truth," Sirica said. "T-R-U-T-H."
Nixon did not give in immediately. He said presidents had their own special set of rules and that "executive privilege" allowed him to keep the tapes secret.
A U.S. court of appeals disagreed. "Though the president is elected by the national ballot and is often said to represent all the people, he does not embody the nation's sovereignty," the court said. "He is not above the law's commands."
Nixon remained confident. There was still the U.S. Supreme Court. One justice disqualified himself, so that left eight and Nixon had appointed three of them. He was not worried.
But on July 24, 1974, the Supreme Court handed down its decision, and it was a stunner not just because the court said Nixon had to give up the tapes, but because the ruling was unanimous.
The tapes doomed him with his own words. They revealed that six days after the break-in, Nixon not only knew about it, but personally ordered a cover-up using the CIA and the FBI to protect his political interests.
The tapes flatly contradicted what the president had been telling the nation. The smoking gun had now appeared.
Eventually Nixon would resign, and eventually the long national nightmare would end and everyone would say that it all proved the democracy works and that justice triumphs.
But it was a very close thing.