Forty-two years ago today, sometime in the afternoon of June 23, 1972, a conversation occurred in the Oval Office between President Richard M. Nixon and his domestic policy adviser, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman. This conversation was nothing less than a turning point in the modern history of the United States. The world might never have known about it, except for the fact that it was caught on tape. Thanks to that circumstance–some would say mistake–you can hear the actual history-making conversation itself, not a re-enactment, in the above YouTube video.

The conversation was consequential because in it Nixon and Haldeman committed a crime: obstruction of justice. There was an investigation going on of the burglary at the Watergate building six days before, and on this tape Nixon and Haldeman agree that calls should be made to the FBI to tell them not to investigate, for fear it would result in the exposure of Nixon’s clandestine domestic intelligence activities. The tapes that were routinely kept of White House conversations were revealed to the public in the summer of 1973, but Nixon fought hard to prevent this particular tape from getting out, and for good reason. On August 5, 1974, Nixon had no choice and released the tape. He resigned four days later. His impeachment and removal from office was now certain, and this tape would have been the chief piece of evidence against him, proving his guilt.

In our own day and age it’s hard to appreciate the Watergate scandal and how momentous it was. In a way that’s because every other scandal since 1974 has been compared to it, and depending on who’s doing the comparing and how bad they want it to sound, they usually complain that {____} (fill in the blank) is worse than Watergate. That was certainly the case in 1998, when Bill Clinton was impeached–he refused to resign as Nixon did–ostensibly for perjuring himself in a deposition involving a private lawsuit against him. But even that situation wasn’t comparable to what happened on the “smoking gun” tape of June 23, 1972. Legally it was unclear whether Clinton committed a crime; he may have committed perjury, or he may not have. But after this tape, there was no question at all that Nixon did. The tape stood alone. Therefore, Watergate was far less ambiguous than the sordid Clinton-Lewinsky affair.

nixon resigns

Richard Nixon resigned the Presidency on August 8, 1974, after it became clear his political support in Congress had collapsed. He wanted to spare the American people–and himself–the wrenching distraction of a protracted trial.

It was also far less ambiguous than the other time (prior to Clinton) that a President was impeached, that being 1868 when Congress tried to remove Andrew Johnson. The issue there was not whether Johnson violated a law, called the Tenure of Office Act–clearly he did, and admitted doing so–but whether that law itself was valid. Congress passed that law in 1867 in part to lay a trap for Johnson to fall into, so they could find him guilty of something; it was unclear whether Congress had the power to pass it. So this too was very different than Watergate.

When you get into matters like Presidential scandals, it becomes a very tangled moral thicket, because there’s an expectation that something inherently subjective–like the “badness” or immorality of a person’s actions–can somehow be measured objectively. This fallacious expectation is why every White House scandal since 1974 automatically gets the suffix “-gate.” But it’s a chimera. Was Bill Clinton, a generally effective President who was reckless and immoral in his private conduct, “worse” than Richard Nixon, another generally effective President who undoubtedly abused the power of his office? Clinton cheated on his wife and lied to the country about it. He also balanced the budget, brought peace to Northern Ireland and grew the technology sector. Andrew Johnson violated a trivial law that was probably unconstitutional; he was also a horrible racist who did his best to frustrate the civil and social liberation of African American ex-slaves. How do you judge these men against each other? In a way you can’t. Every situation is different.

Words do matter. Some words, by their very utterance, change history forever. An example of that would be the words of the Declaration of Independence. The words spoken in the Oval Office on June 23, 1972 definitely changed history. Virtually nothing that’s happened in the U.S. since 1974 would be the same without them. It’s rare to find such a clear-cut example of one of the hinges upon which history turns, but this is one of them.