(The image above from Drug Policy Alliance. Since Nixon also started the drug war or, at least, escalated a low intensity conflict into a full fledged war, it’s particularly apt)
Glenn Greenwald has a book out, With Liberty and Justice for Some which explains the evolution of impunity in the US. While I think that it’s self-evident that the US has always had a two-tiered legal system (for almost 200 years, there was explicitly or implicitly one legal system for whites and one for everyone else), it’s true that official lawbreaking was not so readily tolerated. Overlooking the stray Wilbur Mills/Argentine Firecracker incident and Teapot Dome scandal, the Roosevelt cousins ushered in an expectation that the law would apply to rich and poor alike.
Here’s an excerpt from the book:
As multiple episodes demonstrate, a belief that elite immunity is both necessary and justified became the prevailing ethos in the nation’s most influential circles. In countless instances over recent years, prominent political and media figures have insisted that serious crimes by the most powerful should be overlooked— either in the name of the common good, or in the name of a warped conception of fairness according to which those with the greatest power are the most entitled to deference and understanding.
This is what makes the contemporary form of American lawlessness new and unprecedented. It is now perfectly common, and perfectly acceptable, to openly advocate elite immunity. And this advocacy has had its intended effect: the United States has become a nation that does not apply the rule of law to its elite class, which is another way of saying that the United States does not apply the rule of law. . . .
If the threat of real punishment for criminality is removed, for many rational people there will be little incentive to abide by the law and much incentive to break it. Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist 15, explained why.
It is essential to the idea of a law, that it be attended with a sanction; or, in other words, a penalty or punishment for disobedience. If there be no penalty annexed to disobedience, the resolutions or commands which pretend to be laws will, in fact, amount to nothing more than advice or recommendation.
For the nation’s most powerful elites, the law has indeed been whittled down to “nothing more than advice or recommendation.” Although there have been episodes of unpunished elite malfeasance throughout American history, the explicit, systematic embrace of the notion that such malfeasance should be shielded from legal consequences begins with the Watergate scandal— one of the clearest cases of widespread, deliberate criminality at the highest level of the U.S. government.
By the scandal’s conclusion, few contested that not only Nixon’s top aides but Nixon himself had committed serious felonies— either in authorizing the break-in and related illegalities, or in obstructing the ensuing investigation. Nonetheless, Nixon was ultimately shielded from all legal consequences thanks to the pardon granted by his handpicked vice president, Gerald Ford— who, it was widely believed, secured his appointment by agreeing to protect Nixon from prosecution.
The crisis on Wall Street did indeed begin with Richard Nixon, was amplified by the pass that Congress gave Reagan on Iran-Contra, was amplified again (paradoxically) by the persecution of Bill Clinton, where the law was used as a weapon against a public official, and was been decisively implanted into the American system of law with Election 2000, unprosecuted wiretapping and torture, and the failure of Obama to prosecute criminals from the Bush Administration and from Wall Street.