Why Was the Watergate Scandal so Important?

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The Watergate scandal was a watershed moment in American politics; the authority of Congress was openly defied by a powerful executive branch that, in the opinion of some, had spun out of control. Though the crisis was eventually resolved, it brought America to the brink of what some feared was an open rift between branches of government and threatened the basic legitimacy of the American political system.

The Watergate scandal grew out of a series of burglaries at the office of the Democratic Party, then located at the Watergate hotel in Washington, D.C., during the lead-up to the 1972 presidential election. Investigative reporting after the last burglary, which ended when the burglars were caught in the act, revealed that the group was effectively working on behalf of President Richard Nixon's re-election campaign. The crisis deepened when the public discovered the President had known about the burglaries, covered up much of the evidence and paid hush money to blackmailers who were threatening to release more details about the scandal.

When Congress learned that Nixon had been secretly recording his conversations, it issued a subpoena for the tapes. Nixon resisted the subpoena, claiming executive privilege. Eventually, Congress and the President submitted their case to the Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously to uphold the subpoena. Nixon at last delivered the tapes and, facing impeachment, resigned from office, the first U.S. President to do so.