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Tantalizing 'what if's' 40 years after Watergate

Forty years of investigation have yielded no simple answer to how a clumsy raid that Richard Nixon's spokesman termed a 'third-rate burglary' became a titanic constitutional struggle and led to his resignation.

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President Richard Nixon offers a souvenir pen to one of those in attendance Dec. 23, 1971 after signing legislation. This weekend marks the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in and cover-up, which led to Nixon's resigning the presidency.

AP Photo

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Watergate's "what ifs" are still tantalizing.

What if a security guard hadn't noticed tape on a door latch outside Democratic headquarters at the Watergate office building not far from the White House?

What if a calculating president hadn't taped his private words for posterity?

What if Richard Nixon simply had come clean about the break-in and cover-up, and apologized?

Forty years of investigation, reporting, trials, debate and historical research have yielded no simple answer to how a clumsy raid that Nixon's spokesman termed a "third-rate burglary" became a titanic constitutional struggle and led to his resignation.

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"The shame of it all is that it didn't have to be," Stanley Kutler, the dean of Watergate historians, told The Associated Press in an interview. "Had he been forthcoming, had he told his men, 'This is crazy, who ordered this?' ... (He) wouldn't have had this problem."

Of course, Watergate would never have happened had officials at Nixon's re-election campaign committee not responded to his ceaseless demands for dirt on the opposition by hiring E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy. The ex-CIA and ex-FBI operatives presented an outline, codenamed Operation Gemstone, that included bugging and rifling the files at Democratic National Committee headquarters.

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