W. Joseph Campbell

‘Follow the money’: You won’t find that line in the book

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 27, 2011 at 4:00 am

The most famous line about Watergate reporting — “follow the money” — appears nowhere in the most famous book about Watergate reporting, All the President’s Men.

Not in this book

It’s often thought that it does. The Post and Courier newspaper in Charleston, S.C., said so, for example, in an editorial posted online yesterday.

The editorial referred to the stealthy Watergate source of Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward and declared:

“‘Deep Throat,’ finally identified in 2005 as former FBI associate director Mark Felt, gave Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward the inside dirt on the Nixon administration’s attempt to cover up its dirty tricks.

“He also gave them, as chronicled in their book ‘All the President’s Men,’ this tip: ‘Follow the money.’”

Felt was Woodward’s source; he never met Bernstein until late in Felt’s life.

And Felt never offered Woodward the advice of “follow the money.”

That line doesn’t appear in All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their reporting on Watergate. Nor does it appear in any Watergate-related article or editorial published in the Washington Post before 1981.

The passage was, though, written into the screenplay of All the President’s Men, the 1976 cinematic version of Woodward and Bernstein’s book. The movie came out 35 years ago this month, and has aged quite well.

The acting was notably strong and included a memorable performance by Hal Holbrook, who played a shadowy, tormented “Deep Throat.”

Holbrook delivered his lines about “follow the money” with such certainty and quiet insistence that it sounded as if it really were guidance vital to rolling up Watergate.

But in the real-life investigation of Watergate, “follow the money” wouldn’t have taken investigators to the point of determining Nixon’s guilty role in the crimes of Watergate.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, my media-mythbusting book that came out last year, some 20 men associated with Nixon’s administration or his 1972 reelection campaign went to jail for crimes linked to Watergate.

Rolling up a scandal of such sweep, 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 add, “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.”

What cost Nixon the presidency wasn’t of the improper use of campaign monies but his efforts to obstruct justice and deter the FBI’s investigation of the scandal.

Still, it’s curious why “follow the money” crossed so seamlessly from the silver screen to the vernacular.

One reason no doubt are proximate release dates of the book and movie of All the President’s Men, allowing the two versions to become confounded.

The book came out in June 1974, just as Watergate was nearing its endgame with Nixon’s resignation in August 1974. The movie was released in April 1976, as the wounds of Watergate were only beginning to heal.

Another reason for the persistent appeal of “follow the money” lies in its pithiness. Like many media-driven myths — those dubious or apocryphal tales about the news media and their power — “follow the money” is neat, tidy, succinct. It’s easy to remember, and it seems almost too good not to be true.

But probably the most compelling explanation for its tenacity lies in the power of the cinema to propel media myths and to offer plausible if greatly simplified versions of history.

Richard Bernstein addressed this tendency quite well in a memorable essay published in 1989 in the New York Times.

He wrote that “movies-as-history” tend “to construct Technicolored and sound-tracked edifices of entertainment on the slender foundations of what appear to be actual events, or, at the very least, to mingle fact with fancy, history with imagination, in such a way that the average viewer has no way of sorting out one from the other.”

Quite so.

I note in Getting It Wrong that the cinematic version of All the President’s Men helped ensure that Woodward, Bernstein, and the Post would be regarded as vital and central to the unraveling of Watergate.

The mediacentric version of Watergate — or what I call the heroic-journalist interpretation — allows audiences to sidestep the scandal’s off-putting complexity and engage in a narrative that is entertaining and reassuring.

WJC

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