In one of its recent articles, “The New Blue Bloods,” Spear’s discussed the number of entrepreneurs who sit in the British Parliament. The article opened by invoking the famous made-up line of Watergate:
“Deep Throat’s parking-lot exhortation to Bob Woodward to ‘follow the money’ has long established itself as shorthand for the pursuit of corruption in politics, but in the modern Parliament of the United Kingdom it has come to mean something altogether different.
“The otherwise-indecisive election of May 2010 saw one trend emerge strongly: a surprising number of those new members now sitting on the Government benches are successful entrepreneurs, and it is following the money they have made that has brought them into politics.”
The article, however inelegantly written, demonstrates anew the striking versatility of that contrived phrase as well as its impressive international resonance and its too-good-not-to-be-true quality.
The screenwriter William Goldman has taken credit for writing the line into the script of All the President’s Men, the cinematic version of Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting.
“Follow the money” was uttered in a memorable scene of a late-night meeting in the parking garage, in which Holbrook tells the Woodward character, played by Robert Redford:
“I have to do this my way. You tell me what you know, and I’ll confirm. I’ll keep you in the right direction, if I can, but that’s all.
“Just follow the money.”
Holbrook’s lines were delivered with such authority that it’s not difficult to understand how “follow the money” has crossed from the screen to the vernacular, how the phrase has been embraced not only as plausible but as guidance that was genuine and essential.
In the end, it was Nixon’s efforts to obstruct justice by covering up the break-in at headquarters Democratic national committee headquarters in 1972 that brought down his presidency.
As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the cinema can be a powerful agent in propelling and solidifying media-driven myths. Indeed, All the President’s Men, in its mediacentric focus on the supposed exploits of Woodward and Bernstein, helped inculcate the notion that the reporters’ investigative work was decisive in bringing down Nixon.
I point out in Getting It Wrong that “the cinematic treatment of All the President’s Men placed Woodward and Bernstein at the center of Watergate’s unraveling while denigrating the efforts of investigative agencies such as the FBI.
“The effect was to solidify and elevate the heroic-journalist myth, giving it dramatic power, and sustaining it in the collective memory.”
I further write that the movie “offers an unmistakable assertion of the power and centrality of the press in Nixon’s fall. All the President’s Men allows no other interpretation: It was the work Woodward and Bernstein that set in motion far-reaching effects that brought about the first-ever resignation of a U.S. president.
“And it is a message that has endured. More than thirty-five years later, what remains most vivid, memorable, and accessible about Watergate is the cinematic version of All the President’s Men.”
And a related and intriguing effect has been the tenacity of “follow the money” and the unwitting inclination to treat that pithy, well-delivered line as if it had been advice of decisive importance.
Recent and related:
- ‘Follow the money’: Why the made-up Watergate line endures
- 114 years on the front page
- The Post ‘took down a president’? That’s a myth
- Talking ethics and the ‘golden days’ of Watergate
- The Watergate myth: Why debunking matters
- Cinema and the tenacity of media myths
- 24/7 news cycle no new phenomenon
- On ‘transformational moments’ that journalists see
- Sniffing out media myths
- Media myths, the junk food of journalism
- Getting It Wrong among 90 titles at NPC Book Fair
- JHistory: ‘Getting It Wrong’ deserves to be ‘required reading’