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When a president can do no wrong

Time out for the anniversary of the break-in at Democratic headquarters in the Watergate building, on June 17, 1972, which started President Nixon down the road to ruin. From Watergate to Monicagate, these 30 years have endowed the language with a suffix for national scandal. They have also provided perspective on the sources of paranoia that drove President Nixon over the constitutional edge.

As a wartime president, he raged against antiwar demonstrators. And he saw opponents and critics as enemies warranting destruction. He believed that President Kennedy had plotted the assassination of Vietnam's Ngo Dien Diem and Cuba's Fidel Castro. And that President Johnson had ordered the FBI to bug Nixon's campaign plane in 1968, and that he was, therefore, entitled to spy on others.

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And – the probable specific motive for the break-in at Democratic headquarters – Nixon feared that Democratic Chairman Lawrence O'Brien, a consultant to industrialist Howard Hughes, knew of the $100,000 illegal Hughes donation to Nixon. From the extensive record of the generation since Watergate, we know that Nixon, before being undone by his self-incriminating tapes, planned to parlay his 1972 landslide reelection into something like an internal takeover of the government. He would have his personal commissars directing departments and agencies and the national intelligence operatives would be combined into a repressive force targeted at his enemies.

Even three years after being driven from office, Nixon propounded to interviewer David Frost the idea that "when the president does it, that means it is not illegal." That is the "imperial presidency" theory of government – a version of "the king can do no wrong." That theory has had other adherents. President Reagan, as I recall, defended his illegal support of the Nicaraguan contras and his attempt to trade missiles for hostages with Iran by citing President Lincoln, who he said had blockaded Southern ports and emancipated the slaves without constitutional authority. Mr. Reagan was flexible enough, however, to acknowledge error and to order his own Iran-contra investigation. Nixon, relying on his sweeping powers, resorted to coverup. It is not uncommon for a president to use his powers in an effort to protect himself. Nixon was unique in his effort to mobilize his vast powers to harm others. That he did not succeed is what people mean when they say, "The system worked."

Permit a personal word on this anniversary. Thanks to an NPR producer's research, I was able to see, for the first time, the single most electrifying moment in my career. It was a videotape of me as a CBS News correspondent reporting from the Senate Watergate Committee hearings. Having been handed the first list of 20 White House "enemies," I read the names live on camera without having even scanned them beforehand. At No. 17, I came to "Schorr, Daniel, Columbia Broadcasting System, Washington, A real media enemy."

Despite my shock, I read on through the listing of actor Paul Newman and columnist Mary McGrory without pause and briskly gave the return cue to George Herman and Nelson Benton in the CBS studio. This may have been the most difficult moment of my career, but it was also the proudest.

• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.