ON THIS date 10 years ago, a squad of burglars broke into the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee. The episode remains one of the most bizarre and dramatic in American political history--and deeply instructive, above all, about the nature of American government and law.

This newspaper made the major contribution to the reporting that connected the burglary with President Nixon's White House. Those stories have been cited, frequently and justly, as an example of the power of the press. But they also illustrate the limits to the power of the press. It is a power to force attention, and to press questions. But it doesn't go beyond that. It is highly important to remember that the Watergate scandal would probably have proceeded no further if the courts and Congress had not taken up those questions and used their legal authority to press them harder than a newspaper ever could.

There were times when a sullen White House asked if the newspapers were trying to run the country. No, that's not the papers' job. The whole story of Watergate was an extraordinary illustration of the constitutional process. The press, under the protection of the First Amendment, printed as much as it could find out. But shortly after the election, a judge, John Sirica, concluded from the news stories that the Watergate burglars were protecting the people who had hired them. He used a judge's very broad powers to demand testimony, and they began to talk. In both the Senate and the House, investigations got under way using the formidable weapon of the subpoena. The final disaster for Mr. Nixon was the Supreme Court's decision forcing him to yield the crucial tapes.

Undoubtedly, there would have been no Watergate affair, and no public knowledge of these monumental assaults on the integrity of the American government, without that investigative reporting, in which this newspaper continues to take deep pride. Equally undoubtedly, that reporting would have led to a dead end had the whole constitutional mechanism of courts and congressional committees not forcefully engaged the issue. The relationships involved among independent entities--press and government--are worth reflecting on and worth protecting.