The students in Barbara Garcia's 11th-grade American history class at Woodrow Wilson High are a little fuzzy on the details. They were 6 and 7 years old when five men wearing surgical gloves were arrested inside the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee 10 years ago today.

As 17-year-old Marguerite Keane explained Watergate, "Nixon tapped the Democratic headquarters during the election. They got all the secrets from the Democrats on how they were going to go about trying to win the election. There was more than that, but I think that was basically it. I think lots of top officials were involved and it sort of got messy, like that."Commentary

The facts are somewhat jumbled but the general outline of Watergate can be discerned in that simple description. Watergate, of course, was about more than the bungled break-in of June 17, 1972. The break-in, it turned out, was just the tip of the iceberg. Watergate included the cover-up and a whole laundry list of other felonies and misdemeanors, a seemingly bottomless pit of illegal acts and constitutional transgressions.

On one level Watergate was about spying. Invasion of privacy was elevated to something close to official policy under the Nixon administration, where everyone seemed to have his phone wired to a tape recorder and White House aides talked in terms of black-bag jobs and covert operations. It was one of the ironies of Watergate--the kind of touch worthy of O. Henry--that Richard Nixon's bugging of the Oval Office ultimately provided the evidence that forced him to become the first president to resign.

Indeed "top officials" were involved, and it definitely "got messy." Seven former White House aides and two former attorneys general were convicted of federal crimes, eight of them serving jail sentences. Lives were disrupted, careers derailed, reputations shattered. The president of the United States was named an unindicted co-conspirator in the Watergate cover-up by a federal grand jury and might have stood trial before a jury of his peers had his successor not seen fit to pardon him.

Some have seen the stuff of tragedy in all of this--great men brought low. But the greater impact of Watergate was on us, on the loss of innocence for all but the most jaded and cynical among us.

The American people revere and respect no one so much as their president, believing that even men of humble gifts rise to the challenge and grow in stature when they enter the White House. Richard Nixon showed that the office does not always transform the man, that the man can also lower esteem for the office.

We learned more than perhaps we wanted to know about how men at the pinnacle of power think and talk, how the institutions of government can be employed against those the Nixon administration was prone to call its "enemies."

For those of us who covered the story, there were days when we read with disbelief what our typewriters had just written. Here, for example, is the president of the United States instructing White House aides John W. Dean and H. R. (Bob) Haldeman on Sept. 15, 1972:

"I want the most comprehensive notes on all those who tried to do us in. They didn't have to do it.... No--they were doing this quite deliberately and they are asking for it and they are going to get it. We have not used the power in this first four years as you know. We have never used it. We have not used the Bureau FBI and we have not used the Justice Department but things are going to change now. And they are either going to do it right or go."

Unlike other scandals that blow through Washington like summer squalls, clearing the air but having no long-term impact, Watergate left its mark. Watergate was a ferocious genie, a catalyst that transformed institutions in and out of government.

In 1973, before the Watergate scandal revealed the cover-up, Nixon had advanced a theory of executive privilege more sweeping than any of his predecessors and had begun impounding funds appropriated by Congress for projects with which he disagreed. Nixon's presidency constituted an apex in a recurring cycle in American history, the struggle between the chief executive and Congress for primacy.

Since the Great Depression, faced with one crisis after another, the American people had granted the president greater powers or acquiesced in his assumption of them. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. has described the state of the presidency before Watergate:

"Presidential power was becoming a substitute for presidential leadership. Leadership persuades. Power commands. Leadership flourishes in discussion, power in secrecy. Leadership explains itself. Power rests grimly on its own prerogative. Leadership aims at understanding, power at obedience. As the idea of inherent presidential power grew, the pressure on presidents to justify their use of power declined. As power thrived, the arts of leadership fell into disuse."

Since Watergate, institutions have moved to reclaim power ceded to the president over the years. Congress has claimed a greater role for itself in the budget process and reasserted its right to check adventures abroad through the War Powers Act. The courts have insisted that the president is subject to their directives the same as any other citizen.

Even as Watergate was ruining reputations, it was establishing others. Reporters became full-scale celebrities. In time a multimillion-dollar industry of books, movies, television programs and, of course, legal fees emerged from the scandal. According to one estimate, the various Watergate enterprises generated more than $100 million in revenues. The Washington Post, which enjoyed modest recognition as a national publication, was transformed into a paper with international prominence.

Journalism became a glamor subject in American colleges. In 1969, Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism had 500 applicants. In 1974, the number had increased to 800 and in 1981 to 900.

Watergate also fostered an air of cynicism about presidents and the presidency. "I don't think Watergate was such an odd thing to have happened," 16-year-old Jeanelle Salah asserted, speaking the mind of most of her classmates at Woodrow Wilson. "I think similar things probably happen a lot. Nixon just happened to get caught.... I'm sure there are a lot of other presidents that all did this."

Indeed, precedents exist for many of the wrongs Watergate revealed. The Pentagon Papers told us in 1971 that Lyndon Johnson had dissembled--pulling the wool over the eyes of Congress and the people--to deepen American involvement in Vietnam's war. Johnson, we later learned, received political information about the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party gathered by the FBI, using illegal wiretaps at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. John F. Kennedy recorded conversations in the Oval Office without informing his visitors.

This belated knowledge has made us not more forgiving of Richard Nixon--a Washington Post poll shows that 75 percent of Americans believe that he was "guilty of wrongdoing" in Watergate, as opposed to 10 percent who think he was not--but rather more suspicious of his successors and of leadership. Neither Gerald Ford nor Jimmy Carter was able to rally the country to their banners, and Ronald Reagan, too, despite a stunning first year, appears to have lost his ability to charm, cajole and command.

"There has to be a leader, and it's not the amorphous mass called the Congress," said Lawrence O'Brien, former White House aide to Kennedy and Johnson. "You look to one building in Washington--one guy. That's our system. And if you're not going to have widespread confidence throughout the land in the leader, how can the leader lead? And, until the time you have the ultimate erosion in that area of cynicism I'm describing, I don't know as you can lead."

Without a doubt Watergate aggravated the erosion of public confidence in government, a process that began in the Vietnam era. In 1973, 29 percent of Americans said they had a "great deal" of confidence in the executive branch and 18 percent had "very little." By 1975, the percentages were reversed, and by 1980 only 12 percent had "a great deal" and 30 percent had "hardly any" confidence. Polls found a similar trend for Congress.

The presidency was only one of the government institutions to have its power checked by Watergate. In the era of post-Watergate morality, measures were adopted aimed at curbing abuses of power and outright illegal actions by the CIA and the FBI. The institutionalization of the special prosecutor's office--created to investigate and prosecute official wrongdoing in a politically neutral atmosphere--reflected this lack of confidence in the existing political system's ability to cleanse itself.

In the pre-Watergate era, given the cozy relations FBI Director J. Edgar cultivated with Congress, systematic investigation and prosecution of congressmen and senators would have been unthinkable. More likely, Hoover would have tucked the information away in a file for his own use.

Despite the considerable attention given during Watergate to political contributions and the thrall that money held over politics, money continues to play the dominant role. The difference today, as a result of laws enacted in the last decade, is that we know now where the money is coming from.

When we look for explanations for what happened, for the "madness" that one Nixon White House aide characterized as Watergate, answers are not easy to find.

An associate of Nixon's, a fundamentally decent man who got caught up in the affair, could find no explanation. "Inexplicable," he said. "The poor judgment that was used in the Watergate affair is inexplicable to me."

This person explained his own involvement with Nixon as initially motivated by a sense of idealism. He felt "a sense of mission. You were just a loyal member of the group....When you have that idealism, you're vulnerable. But I do think it's important that every administration have that."

A former Nixon aide finds the answer in paraphrasing an old axiom. "I think Lord Acton had it wrong," he said. "It's not absolute power that corrupts. It's...the pursuit of more power."

"Now I don't mind others looking back and...being critical," Richard Nixon said two weeks ago on the CBS Morning News. " 'Why was this done? Why was that done?' and all that sort of thing. If they think that's going to serve the interests of the country, let 'em do so. I don't think it is, but maybe it'll do their own Narcissus complexes some good, and if it does, that doesn't bother me a bit. But as far as my participating with them in it, no way. I'm looking to the future. They can look back."

Nixon is understandably touchy about the subject of Watergate, loath to re-live and analyze his disgrace. It was painful for all of us, living through those days that were, in the end, also a victory for democracy, for the rule of law and the principle that no man stands above it.

So at the risk of appearing to wallow in Watergate, of indulging in wretched excess, it is worthwhile to recall what happened, and to ask ourselves again why.

"I think the thing about Watergate is that when it happened we were in the second and third grade," said 16-year-old Nata Brown.

"They don't tell the little kids anything because they probably felt we wouldn't understand, and they were probably right. And now nobody wants to talk about it because it's something that was a disgrace to the country.

"But you should tell us so this kind of thing won't happen again. So when we see something like this start to happen, then we can take steps to prevent it."