Ironically, the legacy of Watergate seems to be not a desire to root out presidential indiscretions a la Nixon, but the exact opposite: to let them pass because they are merely representative of politics as usual. Witness, for instance the Iran-Contra Affair, also an unprecedented and wholly illegal act wherein high-level aides in the Reagan Administration actively funnelled money from arms sales to Iran, one of the most rogue nations of our time to fund a violent rightist group in Nicaragua.
Not only has the legacy of Watergate resulted in the excusing of grave presidential indiscretions like Iran-Contra, but it has allowed politicized special interest groups to conflate minor indiscretions with major ones. Thus rabid interests spent the entire two terms of the Clinton Presidency trying to prove Clinton guilty of something, anything, finally forced to try and prosecute on a lie about an unfortunate but hardly impeachable affair with an intern. The rhetorical technique of using the "gate" from Watergate as a suffix to label something a political scandal (e.g. "Monicagate," "Travelgate") helped to conflate made-up indiscretions with the grave indiscretion that had forced Nixon to resign in 1974.
What needs to be cleared up in order to understand whether a president has abused their office is the conventional wisdom that "everybody does it." Does everybody really do it? In studying Nixon in a course this past quarter, that question has nagged me. Nixon's Administration had, as I have learned, yielded some foreign and domestic accomplishments: among them decreasing U.S. involvement in the disastorous Vietnam War, normalizing relations with China and Russia, establishing the Environmental Protection Agency, among others. In retrospective accounts, Nixon has been portrayed by many liberals--even people who did not like him at the time--as our last progressive president. If Nixon's prime reason for resignation, which was the accumulation of irrefutable evidence that he actively tried to prevent a government investigation into the Watergate burglary, is simply politics as usual, Nixon could be viewed as a man who became a target of a nihilistic cynicism of the time. Revisionists have in fact persisted at this exercise.
Such revisionism makes it important to understand whether Nixon was just part of politics as usual, and therefore unfairly vilified by the press and a Democratic majority in Congress. I finally arrived at an answer that illuminated this question for me. In one of our books for the Nixon class, a book titled called The Presidency of Richard Nixon author Melvin Small provides some perspective on Watergate. After noting that Nixon's White House taping system was by no means unprecedented, Small goes on to note all that was unprecedented about the Nixon administration:
The Nixon administration would be revealed to be the most scandal-ridden administration in American history. And those scandals did not involve merely looting the public treasury by public officials, as had occurred during the Grant and Harding administrations, or the irresponsible and reckless sexual peccadilloes of John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton. They revolved around a variety of illegal and extralegal political actions directed by the president and his chief assistants, including the former attorney general of the United States, that attempted to subvert the American political system (273).
and on the National Security claim, which we are currently hearing from the Bush Administration:
National Security was not at stake here. The CIA's only involvement with the burglars involved the technical assitance that Hunt's friends in the agency had provided for the [Daniel] Ellsberg break-in and other intelligence gambits. Nixons' fraudulent employment of national security constituted his first major invovlement in an illegal scheme to curtail the Watergate investigation (277).