You never forget your first impeachment crisis, and I remember mine like a lingering melody. It all began that sultry night of June 17, 1972, when a bungling team of burglars got nabbed red-handed breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Hotel and office complex. It proved to be perhaps the most fateful act of numbskullery in our history. What was originally pooh-poohed by the White House as “a third-rate burglary” triggered a string of mousetraps that would eventually bring down the president.

The discovery of the Plumbers unit, the thuggish henchmen-ry of Charles Colson and G. Gordon Liddy, the two-headed growling Orthrus of Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman and domestic adviser John Ehrlichman, the revelation of the White House taping system, the Saturday Night Massacre, the jowly profile of Nixonian authoritarianism casting a baleful shadow across the capital—to journalists and historians, the Watergate saga represents a dark, teetering chapter in our democracy, a dangerous brush with despotism.