A dark side of Richard Nixon's legacy endures today in a nation of cynics. The Watergate deeds that led to his forced resignation deepened and solidified the public mistrust bequeathed by his predecessor.

Lyndon B. Johnson's deceptive accounts of the Vietnam War opened a yawning credibility gap. Then came Nixon's White House, crossing the line into criminal conduct."Watergate was a watershed. It turned presidents into potential crooks," said sociologist Todd Gitlin, author of "The Sixties."

Nixon's duplicity aggravated a "fundamental cultural malaise" marked by the conviction that whatever appears in public is a facade, said sociologist Jeffrey Goldfarb, author of "The Cynical Society."

"He was to his core a cynical person," said Goldfarb, a professor at the New School for Social Research. "He taught the nation to be very, very wary about the articulation of any ideal, because all ideals seemed to be absolutely vacuous."

A whole range of social and political consequences ensued from the three-syllable word that's now shorthand for all that is corrupt and corrosive in government. Not least of them is the permanent shadow of impeachment on the political landscape.

"Before Watergate, the notion of a presidential impeachment was from the Dark Ages, the 19th century. No one thought about it," said Michael Schudson, author of "Watergate in American Memory."

Schudson, a sociology professor at the University of California at San Diego, said political leaders didn't mention impeachment for almost a year into the Watergate affair. But it came up within days of the first revelations in the Reagan administration's Iran-Contra scandal.

It's even been mentioned by some politicians in connection with the current Whitewater affair.

"That's ridiculous, but that is a legacy of Watergate," Schudson said. "We are ready to suspect that any little thread we find is going to lead to a whole roomful of horrors."

Other parts of the legacy include an aggressive press corps inspired by the investigative work that unraveled Watergate, and a strengthened Freedom of Information Act opening government business to public scrutiny.

In addition, Congress passed a law to create the special prosecutors who investigate government scandals. The need was pointed up by the "Saturday Night Massacre" in which Nixon tried to fire Archibald Cox, the Watergate prosecutor. His top two Justice Department officials refused to do it; the ax was lowered by No. 3, Robert Bork.

That was but one memorable night in a saga of shredding, perjury, wiretapping, hush money, clemency deals, using the IRS against enemies and the CIA to head off the FBI.

It was "a major gothic presidency," said University of Texas historian Walter Dean Burnham. What's more, he said, it was the second one in a row - after "Johnson leaving under a huge cloud in 1968-69 with everything seeming to bust apart at the seams."

Americans had a dim view of the presidency even before Nixon was driven from the Oval Office under threat of impeachment. The Harris Poll of 1973 found only 18 percent of Americans had confidence in the White House, the first time the question was asked.

In 1975-76, when unelected President Gerald Ford was in office and pardoned Nixon, that fell to an all-time low of 11 percent.

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Americans have demonstrated that they yearn for a president they can trust. They elected Jimmy Carter in 1976 at least partly on the strength of his promise that he would never lie to them. But he proved to be a weak leader.

The country next turned to Ronald Reagan, whose forceful optimism did give the White House a temporary boost. The Harris level of confidence was up to 42 percent in 1984 but fell to 17 percent in 1988, after the Iran-Contra disclosures. And that's about where Bill Clinton finds the presidency today.

Some analysts say ever-complicated problems at home and abroad are at the heart of the erosion of confidence.

There remains an underlying cultural presumption that presidents are opportunistic, and Schudson predicts it will last as long as memories of Vietnam, Watergate and Iran-Contra endure.

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