W. Joseph Campbell

Always ‘follow the money’ — even if it’s made up

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 11, 2011 at 10:26 am

Watergate’s single most famous line — “follow the money” — is impressively durable and versatile.

Especially so for a made-up line.

Follow the money” wasn’t guidance offered during the Watergate scandal of 1972-74. It wasn’t advice crucial to unraveling the most significant case of corruption in American history.

It was a line written into the screenplay of All the President’s Men, the 1976 motion picture that dramatized the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post.

“Follow the money” was spoken by Hal Hollbrook, who played Woodward’s stealthy “Deep Throat” source in All the President’s Men. (The real-life “Deep Throat” was revealed in 2005 to have been W. Mark Felt, formerly the second-ranking official at the FBI.)

The line is so pithy — and seems to offer such sage and telling advice — that it crossed long ago from the cinema to the vernacular, and has become embedded in Watergate lore.

A telling example of how deeply “follow the money” has burrowed into popular culture was apparent in a commentary posted yesterday by the scrappy Washington Times newspaper.

The commentary discussed companies that pay no corporate federal taxes, declaring: “For too long the American public has been hornswoggled by this century’s ‘robber barons.'”

The commentary included this passage:

“No wonder corporations court politicians. As Deep Throat so wisely told reporter Bob Woodward, ‘Always follow the money.‘”

Always follow the money, eh?

Even if Felt, Woodward’s real-life “Deep Throat” source, had offered such guidance, it wouldn’t have been sufficient to implicate Nixon in the crimes of  Watergate.

Unraveling the scandal required much more than identifying and following a trail of illicit fundraising and money-laundering. Those were elements of Watergate, but they weren’t decisive in forcing President Richard Nixon’s resignation in August 1974.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, my media-mythbusting book that came out last year, some 20 men associated with Nixon’s  presidency or reelection campaign went to jail for crimes linked to Watergate.

To roll up a scandal of such dimension, I write in Getting It Wrong, “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

“Even then,” I note, “Nixon likely would have served out his [second] term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up and authorizing payments of thousands of dollars in hush money.”

Those were the disclosures that brought about Nixon’s resignation in August 1974.

The reporting of the Washington Post was marginal to that outcome, despite the message and storyline of All the President’s Men.

WJC

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