Before Frank Underwood in House of Cards, there was President Richard Nixon.
(Oh, come on. Let us have some fun exaggerating.)
The events that led to U.S. v. Nixon began with the publication of the Pentagon Papers, which were secret Department of Defense papers about the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Richard Nixon was elected in 1968, during the Vietnam War, and the war was going worse than a game of Starcraft when you're a terran stuck in the middle of a zerg rush.
Translation: pretty bad.
In 1971, The New York Times published the Pentagon Papers, which wasn't only a history of the United States' military involvement in Vietnam, but also contained information about the United States' illegal bombing of Cambodia and Laos…which hadn't been formally disclosed to the public. Leaked by Daniel Ellsberg (the original Edward Snowden) the publication of the Pentagon Papers fueled President Nixon's already famous paranoia.
Nixon was so fearful of more leaks that he formed a covert investigation unit, nicknamed "the plumbers." (Because they would plug leaks…get it?) Former CIA agent E. Howard Hunt and former FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy led the plumbing operation, which would not only stop leaks from the press, but would also gather information for the Nixon White House.
Their first mission was breaking into Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office to dig up dirt to blackmail him. As shocking as this sounds, it wasn't anything new for the Nixon White House, which was in the habit of using the FBI and other government agencies to spy on and discredit Nixon's political opponents. Wiretaps were just business as usual.
There seemed to be a general attitude that anything was okay if it helped the president.
In May of 1972, the plumbers directed an operation to break into the Watergate Hotel in D.C., home of the Democratic National Committee headquarters. They bugged the phones and stole whatever documents they could get their hands on. On June 17th, going back in to repair some of their listening devices, five men wearing blue surgical gloves were caught trying to break in. One of the burglars was carrying the phone number of E. Howard Hunt, an ex-CIA agent now doing undercover work for Nixon's Committee to Re-Elect the President (nicknamed CREEP by the press).
While Nixon denied involvement in the break-in, it became clear that this was an extensive operation, with hush money paid to the Watergate burglars, and all kinds of intrigue. A Senate committee appointed to investigate the incident gathered info that eventually led to the indictment of seven conspirators, most of them White House staff and other associates of the president. The hearings were televised, and Americans were glued to the TVs—85% of households tuned in (source).
During the investigation, some of the conspirators began to spill the beans about the operation. One of the most important beans was the revelation that President Nixon had a taping system inside the Oval Office, supposedly so all the important conversations there could eventually be used for his memoirs. The Watergate Committee wanted those tapes for what they might find out about Hunt, Liddy, and the rest of the guys indicted in the Watergate scandal. Also, they might reveal how much the president knew about the break in and when he knew it.
They subpoenaed the tapes.
Nixon claimed that executive privilege protected the privacy of his tapes, and the case went to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, which dismissed it because of lack of jurisdiction. It was left to the special prosecutor to go before John Sirica, Chief Judge for the D.C. District Court, and request a subpoena as part of the criminal case he was pursuing against Nixon's former staff members.
Nixon attempted to quash the subpoena. When Sirica ordered Nixon to release the tapes, Nixon appealed, and the case went to the Supreme Court. In the decision of U.S. v. Nixon, they affirmed the lower court's ruling rejecting Nixon's claim of executive privilege, forcing him to release his tapes to the special prosecutor. Nixon knew what those tapes would reveal—not only that he participated in the burglary and cover-up from the start, but that he'd formed a private police unit that operated outside the laws and the constitution. Facing certain impeachment, Nixon announced his resignation on August 8th, 1974, just sixteen days after the Supreme Court ruling.
Nixon's resignation ended a national nightmare, but the scandal continued to reverberate, marking a low point in the nation's trust in the integrity of its government. Three thousand plus hours of tapes were released over the years, each bunch bringing new and shocking revelations. In 2010, the nation heard chats from early 1973 where Nixon talked smack about Jews (insecure, aggressive, obnoxious), Blacks (they need to inbreed with whites), Irish (mean drunks), and Italians (don't have their heads screwed on tight). (Source)
The upside of Watergate is that government is now totally transparent and trustworthy.
But at least we now know what to call a scandal : We've got Spy-gate, Gamer-gate, Monica-gate, Deflate-gate, Nanny-gate (Bill Clinton and Ben Affleck versions), Donut-gate, Trooper-gate (Clinton and Palin versions), and Travel-gate.
And that's just a partial list.