The Nixon Administration bugged Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex. Their operatives were caught breaking and entering Watergate to replace a defective device. One of the operatives was a former CIA agent, James McCord, and at least one other had been involved in the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Although it is true that, as conventional wisdom holds, the cover-up was worse than the crime, that is really only part of the Watergate story. The other part is that the investigation of Watergate and the cover-up revealed other illegal and rogue operations that were not, strictly, part of the break-in or its cover-up: the existence of the 'plumbers unit', the plan to firebomb the Brookings Institute, the break-in to Dr. Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office. Years later, Nixon proclaimed that an act is not illegal if the president does it, the first modern assertion of the imperial presidency.
Look where the imperial presidency got us then, look where it got us now.
The rightwing, the very same people who raise their hands in horror at every minor congressionally-passed regulation as an invasion of liberty, such as the Americans With Disability Act, resisted every step of the investigation into Nixon's rogue regime.
Enter, Dick Cheney (stage-right). Cheney had served Rumsfeld in the subsequent Ford administration, saw the imperial presidency dethroned, returning the country to Constitutional government. He did not like it, and, after selecting himself to be Bush's vice president, openly stated that one of his aims was to make the Presidency (or Executive) more powerful again.
It is no accident that the next imperial presidency was shared by Dick Cheney. The Bush administration was a rogue regime, unchecked by a partisan and then a cowardly Congress, in many areas, not just torture. It transformed the first country in the world founded on the Enlightenment by changing data and scientific findings to suit its needs. It signed laws and then issued statements indicating what parts it would ignore or enforce according to their whims. It directly interfered in the prosecution of justice. It was criminally negligent in its appointments to agencies, like FEMA, charged with protecting the citizenry. It claimed and exercised unlimited power in time of war.
No one at the time of the Watergate investigations suggested that there was anything wrong in "looking back". What would this country have become in the last 3 decades if no one were held accountable? Had Haldemann-Ehrlichmann-Colson-Mitchell-Dean-Liddy and others not have been investigated and prosecuted, Congress would have become an incidental part of government, and we would have telegraphed that there were no consequences for abuse of government power and violating others' Constitutional rights.
Nixon, of course, was pardoned by Gerald Ford, his self-picked successor. Although maintaining for many years that he pardoned Nixon "for the good of the country", Ford later admitted he did it out of personal concern for Nixon, responding to Nixon's daughter's repeated phone calls to save her father. It is a real question as to how much Nixon's pardon contributed to Cheney's (and thus Bush's) willingness to try it again.
Cheney has been taunting the administration by admitting in an interview that he approved Waterboarding, daring them to try to prosecute him. At some time, Addington, Yoo, Bybee or others associated with this policy will travel outside the United States and be arrested. What will they do? Defend an American overseas and thus put themselves on the side of violators of the Geneva Conventions?
Nixon left Ford inflation and recession, a war winding down -- i.e., not as big a mess as Cheney-Bush left Obama, but a good 'ole mess nonetheless. No one thought that that mess should preclude pursuing the larger Watergate affair, and the rogue regime that gave rise to it.
Mr. President: What makes Water(boarding)gate different?