W. Joseph Campbell

‘Follow the money’: Why the made-up Watergate line endures

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 8, 2011 at 10:32 am

Watergate’s most famous made-up line — “follow the money” — is impressively versatile and doggedly persistent, some 35 years after it was written into a screenplay.

Mark Felt, 'Deep Throat' source

It’s a phrase that has resonance internationally. It’s made its way onto the sports pages and into publications on topics as diverse as secondary education and systems analysis.

And yesterday, the CBS business news site BNET invoked the passage in a post discussing a recent report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission.

The reference to “follow the money” appeared at the end of BNET, as if it were an attempt at a witty ending:

“As Deep Throat said about the Watergate investigation, ‘follow the money.'”

But “follow the money” is really more clichéd than witty.

More important, it was a line not spoken by the stealthy “Deep Throat” source (see photo, above) of the Washington Post during its investigation of the Watergate scandal. The passage never appeared in the newspaper’s Watergate-related coverage.

No, it wasn’t the “Deep Throat” newspaper source who uttered “follow the money.” It was the actor Hal Holbrook, who played “Deep Throat” in the motion picture, All the President’s Men. The movie was based on Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting for the Post.

Screenwriter William Goldman has taken credit for writing “follow the  money” into the script of All the President’s Men, which came out in 1976, less than two years after Watergate reached a climax with the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Since 1976, millions of people have repeated the line, oblivious to its derivation and unaware of its falsity.

So why does this made-up line persist? Why is “follow the money” so appealing and versatile?

Like many media myths, “follow the money” is pithy, accessible, and easy-to-remember.

As I write in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, “Turns of phrase that sound too neat and tidy often are too perfect to be true.” William Randolph Hearst’s pithy vow to “furnish the war” with Spain is a particularly telling example.

There are, of course, other explanations for the persistent popularity of “follow the money.” It is, after all, a supposedly famous piece of advice — advice presumably crucial in unraveling Watergate.

The line suggests that rolling up the scandal was accomplished by identifying, pursuing, and reporting on an illicit money trail. Its purported centrality to understanding the Watergate scandal is an important reason why “follow the money” crossed smoothly from the silver screen to the vernacular and lives on.

But the Watergate scandal was more than a matter of a money trail. In the end, Nixon’s attempts to obstruct justice by covering up the break-in at headquarters Democratic national committee headquarters in 1972 brought down his presidency.

Moreover, “follow the money” is adaptable advice. It can be applied in many contexts. As Frances Miller wrote last year in the American Journal of Law and Medicine:

“Follow the money is a versatile phrase; the term can be used as an exhortation, designate a pathway, or denote a lifestyle choice. When it comes to health care, following the money is at least part of the sine qua non for anyone seeking to understand how this complex sector of the U.S. economy has arrived at its present sorry state.”

Similarly, “follow the money” has offered pertinent lessons in systems thinking, a broad-based approach to organizational assessment.

The journal Quality Progress invoked “Deep Throat” and “follow the money” in observing in 2004:

“What Deep Throat did, in effect, was lead Woodward, his colleague Carl Bernstein and the rest of us Watergate observers through an experiential workshop in systems thinking. The general instruction he gave the reporters to unravel the plot was, ‘Follow the money.’

“He assured them the money would connect the dots for them and eventually reveal the conspiracy’s entire ‘circulatory’ system. Identifying resources is one way to sketch in the outlines of some systems.”

That assessment was offered in the year before W. Mark Felt, formerly the second-ranking official at the FBI, identified himself as having been the “Deep Throat” of the Washington Post.


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