The latest Watergate-era tapes released by the National Archives support former President Richard Nixon's generally accepted claim that he had no advance knowledge of the break-in at Democratic National Committee Headquarters in Washington on June 17, 1972. But the tapes also show that Nixon from the very beginning fatally miscalculated the political implications of what the White House initially sought to dismiss as an inconsequential burglary. Within 26 months that miscalculation forced the only resignation from office by a U.S. President.

" . . . The country doesn't give much of a (expletive deleted) about bugging," Nixon says on the tape, just four days after the burglary. That relaxed assessment may in fact not have been too far off the mark. But people did come to care, very deeply, as journalistic probing and congressional hearings in time revealed how Nixon and his subordinates tried to cover up the Administration's role in the break-in, and how other legal and ethical border lines had been regularly crossed.

Nixon of course had the option at the time of insisting on a full exposure of the facts, something that would have embarrassed the President by implicating his key assistants in criminal wrongdoing. Even then, Nixon probably would still have been reelected in 1972 and been able to retire from office honorably in 1977. A man generally regarded as one of the most astute politicians of his time thus made a staggeringly wrong political evaluation. The result produced personal tragedy as well as a unique event in American history.

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