W. Joseph Campbell

Made-up Watergate line, ‘follow the money,’ crosses into the news

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Washington Post, Watergate myth on October 6, 2011 at 4:38 am

Kenneth H. Dahlberg, a minor Watergate figure, died the other day and Minnesota Public Radio recalled his role in the scandal by turning to the famous made-up line, “follow the money” — advice supposedly given to Washington Post reporters working the story.

The public radio station’s “News Cut” feature noted yesterday that “Dahlberg was the Midwest finance chairman for the Committee to Re-elect the President during President Richard M. Nixon’s 1972 campaign.

“A mysterious check, which later would be determined to be from the CEO of Archer Daniels Midland, was given to Dahlberg, who converted it to a cashier’s check. It was money from the campaign, destined for the Watergate burglars.”

The Minnesota Public Radio report added that when the stealthy, high-level “Deep Throat” source told Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein “to ‘follow the money,’ that was the money. And when Woodward called Dahlberg to confirm he handled the check, Dahlberg didn’t lie. … It ended up a critical part of the movie All The President’s Men.”

That last bit is true. Woodward’s telephone interview with Dahlberg became a memorable scene in the 1976 movie.

Otherwise, though, there’s a fair amount of wayward information in the “News Cut” report.

For starters, “Deep Throat” never met with Bernstein during Watergate.

More important, “Deep Throat” (self-revealed in 2005 to have been former FBI official W. Mark Felt) never advised Woodward to “follow the money.”

Felt: Never said it

That line appears nowhere in All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein’s 1974 book about their Watergate reporting — reporting that did not, as I discuss in my latest work, Getting It Wrong, take down Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Moreover, “follow the money” appeared in no Watergate-related article or editorial in the Washington Post  before 1981 — or long after Nixon resigned the presidency in disgrace.

Rather, “follow the money” was written into the screenplay of the cinematic version of All the President’s Men; the line was memorably uttered not by Felt, the real-life “Deep Throat,” but by Hal Holbrook, the actor who played him in the movie.

As I’ve noted at Media Myth Alert, Holbrook turned in an outstanding performance as a tormented and conflicted “Deep Throat.”

And he delivered his “follow the money” line with such steely assurance that it did seem to offer a way through the labyrinth that was the Watergate scandal.

But even if Woodward had been counseled to “follow the money,” such advice certainly would neither have unraveled Watergate nor led him to Nixon.

What forced Nixon from office in 1974 was not the grubby misuse of campaign funds but, rather, his active role in seeking to obstruct justice by covering up the signal crime of the Watergate scandal, the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in June 1972.

Rolling up the scandal of Watergate’s complexity and dimension was scarcely as straightforward as pursuing misused campaign contributions.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, unraveling Watergate 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 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 cost him the presidency.

WJC

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