I think Rick Perlstein has a point when he argues that Gerald Ford's decision to pardon Richard Nixon set a standard for the coddling of elite wrongdoers:
... political elites took away a dangerous lesson from the Ford pardon -- our true shame: All it takes is the incantation of magic words like "stability" and "confidence" and "consensus" in order to inure yourself from accountability for just about any malfeasance.Perlstein writes about the investigation of U.S. intelligence agencies that began in 1975:
At the height of the intelligence investigations Washington Post's publisher Katharine Graham complained of the media's tendency to "see a conspiracy and cover-up in everything." Sen. J. William Fulbright said "these are not the kind of truths we need most right now," that the nation demanded "restored stability and confidence" instead. The CIA had no trouble promptly drumming up a disingenuous propaganda campaign that all but neutered reform. And, 39 years later, these institutions are still largely broken, and still almost entirely unaccountable.That sort of thinking prevailed with regard to Iran-contra in the Reagan years and also the various abuses of the George W. Bush administration -- don't punish the principals severely and, heaven knows, don't impeach the president, much less hold the executive branch accountable in any other way.
But this isn't exactly an ironclad rule, because there's been at least one post-Nixon exception: Bill Clinton.
The elites didn't express horror at the thought of Clinton being forced from office because of the Lewinsky scandal. Approximately 125 newspapers called for Clinton's resignation. The media tut-tutters stood by as Clinton was actually impeached. The Washington Post, where in the mid-1970s there was disdain for those who allegedly "see a conspiracy and cover-up in everything," was home in the 1990s to those who believed that the president "came in here" (i.e., Washington) "and trashed the place, and it's not his place."
If President Obama's poll numbers remain low, and if a Republican Senate takeover inspires serious efforts to impeach the president, I wonder whether the insiders are going to argue in favor of "stability" or just join the pile-on. Given what happened to the last Democratic president, my money's on the latter.