W. Joseph Campbell

The Fin Times and the ‘mantra’ of Watergate

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 28, 2011 at 7:33 am

The single phrase associated most often with Watergate surely is “follow the money” — guidance supposedly given to Washington Post reporters covering the scandal in the early 1970s.

“Follow the money” also is the best-known made-up line of Watergate.

The statement is only as real as images projected on the screen: “Follow the money” was written into the screenplay of All the President’s Men, the cinematic version of the Watergate book by Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

But because it sounded so compelling, because it seemed to be such crucial guidance to unraveling the dimensions of Watergate, “follow the money” made a smooth transition from cinematic fiction to the vernacular.

So it’s commonly believed that “follow the money” was guidance uttered by the  Post’s high-level secret source, who was code-named “Deep Throat.”

The usually sober and usually well-reported Financial Times of London yesterday invoked “follow the money” as if it were genuine, stating in a column on financial matters:

“’Follow the money’ might have been the mantra for Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in investigating the Watergate scandal. But ‘follow the debt’ would be a better way of summing up where investors should be looking for the next bubble.”

We’ll leave “follow the debt” to bubble-seeking investors.

What intrigues Media Myth Alert is the reference to “follow the money” as the “mantra” of Watergate.

No way was it Watergate’s “mantra.”

The line appeared in no Watergate-related news article or editorial in the Post until 1981 — nearly seven years after Watergate had reached a climax with the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Moreover, “follow the money” appears nowhere in Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting. The book came out in June 1974, a couple of months before Nixon quit the presidency in disgrace.

So the phrase was no “mantra.”

What pressed “follow the money” into the vernacular was the marvelous performance of actor Hal Holbrook in the cinematic version of All the President’s Men.

Holbrook played a conflicted, shadowy, even tormented “Deep Throat” character. In a memorable, late-night scene in a darkened parking garage, Holbrook told 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 delivered the “follow the money” line with such quiet conviction that it seemed to be a guide to unraveling the labyrinthine scandal that was Watergate.

Bernstein (Newseum photo)

But had it really been offered to Woodward (“Deep Throat” never met Bernstein during Watergate), “follow the money” would have taken him only so far.

Watergate, after all, was much broader than the misuse of campaign funds.

What ultimately brought down Nixon was  his plotting to cover up the signal crime of Watergate — the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in June 1972.

As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s dimension 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 write, “Nixon likely would have served out his 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 the Watergate-related recordings that captured him plotting to cover up the Watergate break-in.

Heeding advice to “follow-the-money” scarcely would have enabled investigators to uncover the decisive evidence about Nixon’s misconduct.

WJC

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  1. [...] last week, for example, a column in London’s high-brow Financial Times newspaper described “follow the money” as the “mantra” of Watergate. And a column posted at Huffington [...]

  2. [...] more, “follow the money” appeared in no Watergate-related article or editorial in the Post until June [...]

  3. [...] “follow the money” appeared in no Watergate-related article or editorial in the Washington Post  before 1981 [...]

  4. [...] “Rational Irrationality” blog the other day joined the likes of the Financial Times, Fox News, the Huffington Post, Minnesota Public Radio, the Providence Journal, media critic Eric [...]

  5. [...] “Rational Irrationality” blog the other day joined the likes of the Financial Times, Fox News, the Huffington Post, Minnesota Public Radio, the Providence Journal, media critic Eric [...]

  6. [...] “Follow the money” was invented for the movie. [...]

  7. [...] “Follow the money” was written into the screenplay of All the President’s Men, the cinematic adaptation of Woodward and Bernstein’s book. [...]

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