W. Joseph Campbell

Hal Holbrook, ‘follow the money,’ and Watergate’s distorted history

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Quotes, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 3, 2021 at 8:48 am

The death of actor Hal Holbrook was reported yesterday and, inevitably, his cinematic portrayal of a shadowy, garage-lurking source in the Watergate scandal received prominent mention in a flurry of obituaries.

Those articles recalled Holbrook’s advice in the film All the President’s Men to “follow the money” which, in the movie, was presented as guidance crucial to unraveling the scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon in 1974.

Holbrook’s portrayal of the journalist’s source code-named “Deep Throat” was, as I wrote in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, “marvelously twitchy and conflicted.” And his famous line was delivered so crisply and with such certainty that it has become perhaps the most memorable turn of phrase associated with Watergate.

Indeed, “follow the money” is a cinematic anagram that often has been taken as genuine. In fact it’s Watergate’s most famous made-up line. The urgent-sounding advice was written into the screenplay of All the President’s Men, which was adapted from a book by the Post’s lead Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

Their book, also titled All the President’s Men, was an immediate best-seller when it came out in 1974, not long before Nixon’s resignation.

As popular as the book was, far more people have seen the movie, which has been lavishly praised over the years for its outstanding cast and for its supposed accuracy. The Post’s movie critic once declared, extravagantly:

“In the annals of Washington’s most sacred narratives, none is more venerated than ‘All the President’s Men,’ which since its release in 1976 has held up not only as a taut, well-made thriller but as the record itself of the Watergate scandal that transpired four years earlier.”

The movie as the “record itself of the Watergate scandal.”

Hardly.

Beyond injecting “follow the money” into the popular vernacular, All the President’s Men toyed with the historical record in several respects. Notably, the film:

  • embraced and elevated the mythical heroic-journalist trope, depicting the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein as vital to unraveling the scandal. In fact, Woodward and Bernstein missed key developments in Watergate, such as the pivotal disclosure of the taping system Nixon had installed at the White House.
  • minimized, and even denigrated, the decisive contributions of investigative agencies such as the FBI in exposing the crimes of Watergate. Subpoena-wielding Congressional panels also were crucial to defining the scandal’s dimensions.
  • depicted Woodward and Bernstein as having faced threats far greater than they really encountered. They were shown, for example, as taking precautions to thwart electronic surveillance presumably aimed at them by the Nixon administration. Although “Deep Throat” — who in real life was Mark Felt, a high-level FBI official — had warned them about such eavesdropping techniques, Woodward and Bernstein followed precautions such as conferring on street corners only for a short period. It “all seemed rather foolish and melodramatic,” they wrote in their book, and soon went back to their routines.

The film also blurred somewhat the personas of Holbrook and Felt, who in 2005 revealed that he had been Woodward’s “Deep Throat” source. An  essay in the Post today claimed that while Holbrook’s “follow the money” line had been made up for dramatic purposes, it “still reflected what Felt was saying without saying it.”

Interestingly, Holbrook, who was 95 when he died last month, said late in his life that he wasn’t interested in playing the “Deep Throat” source because the character was shown only in deep shadows of a parking garage. “I turned the script down because there’s nothing there,” Holbrook said in an interview with the Television Academy Foundation. “You don’t see the guy and there’s nothing there. I’m not going to do it.”

Holbrook was persuaded to take the part by Robert Redford, who acquired rights to Woodward and Bernstein’s book and played Woodward in the movie. “He said, ‘Listen, Hal. People will remember this role more than anything else in the film. … I’m telling you the truth, they will remember this role,'” Holbrook quoted Redford as saying.

Holbrook said he relented and reluctantly agreed to play “Deep Throat.” He acknowledged in the interview that Redford turned out to be right about the memorable quality of the stealthy character. “He was right as rain,” Holbrook conceded. “He understood it, and I didn’t.”

WJC

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‘Napalm Girl’ photographer defies backlash risk and accepts award at White House; is assaulted following night

In 'Napalm girl', Debunking, Media myths, Photographs on January 16, 2021 at 8:35 pm

Nick Ut, the award-winning photojournalist who took the  much-mythologizedNapalm Girl” image late in the Vietnam War, came to Washington, D.C., this week to accept an award from President Donald Trump. Ut risked intense backlash for sharing a stage with the soon-departed, and once-again-impeached, U.S. president.

‘Napalm Girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

But Ut made clear he wasn’t deterred by the risks or the optics, writing in a first-person essay for Newsweek that “it was the happiest moment of my life” when Trump placed the National Medal of Arts around his neck. “I couldn’t believe the president of the United States was giving me a medal,” Ut added. “Everyone was applauding and congratulating me.”

The following night in Washington, while walking with a friend to dinner, Ut was physically assaulted and injured, saying in an Instagram post that his assailant was a “drug addict young guy” who “knocked me down and hurt my ribs, back and left leg.”

The attack took place a few blocks from the White House but seemed unrelated to his receiving the medal from Trump.

Ut, who is almost 70 and stands barely 5 feet tall, retired in 2017 after 51 years of taking photos for the Associated Press news service. He said in his Newsweek essay that he anticipated receiving “a lot of messages about accepting the award.

“But I don’t mind if anyone is angry because the award is for me personally, and it is from the President of the United States. He’s still the president. And this is America. We have freedom here. I never forget that.”

It was a notable statement in a troubled and censoring time, when such sentiments are not widely embraced or even welcome. Not after last week’s shocking assault on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters, following a rally where the president reiterated his complaints about irregularities in the November presidential election. The Capitol assault gave rise to a snap impeachment vote in the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives on Wednesday, the day Ut received the award.

Ut and Trump had met before, in Los Angeles, before Trump was elected president. Ut recalled in his essay that Trump “loved my picture of Vietnam. He said to me: ‘Nick, your picture changed the world.'”

Nick Ut, 2017

Ut was quoted in 2016 as saying Trump had made a similar statement, that the “Napalm Girl” photograph had been “responsible for ending the Vietnam War.”

Ut was reported then to have said in jest, “I couldn’t ask for a better agent” than Trump.

The presumed power of the “Napalm Girl” has been at the heart of tenacious media myths about the photograph, which showed a cluster of Vietnamese children fleeing a misdirected air strike on their village.

At the center of the photo was Kim Phuc, a 9-year-old girl whose clothes were burned away by the napalm. Thanks to Ut’s taking her to hospital soon after the attack, the girl survived her severe burns. She lives in suburban Toronto, having defected from Vietnam in 1992. She and Ut are frequently in touch.

The myths of the “Napalm Girl” include the notion — sometimes invoked by Ut, himself — that the photograph, taken in June 1972 during a napalm attack in what then was South Vietnam, was so compelling that it accelerated the end to the war.

But as I wrote in the second edition of my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “claims that the photograph hastened the war’s end are accompanied by little or no supporting evidence, and by little or no explanation about just how a still photograph could have exerted such an influence.”

I also noted that “Napalm Girl” exerted “no discernible effect or influence on the U.S. policy of ‘Vietnamization,’ of shifting the burden of the ground war to the South Vietnamese while dramatically reducing the U.S. combat presence in the country.” By early June 1972, about 60,000 U.S. troops remained in Vietnam, down from a peak of 543,000 troops in April 1969. 

The trajectory of the U.S. troop drawdown was “neither accelerated nor otherwise influenced by the publication of ‘Napalm Girl,'” I noted.

Moreover, the war did not end until April 1975, nearly three years after the photograph was made, when North Vietnamese forces conquered the South and installed communist rule there.

Despite the myths that surround it, “Napalm Girl” lives on as what I’ve called “an insistent statement about the horrors of war and its terrorizing effects on civilians.”

Even so, to argue that “a single still photograph was decisive to the Vietnam conflict,” I wrote in Getitng It Wrong not only “is to indulge in media-centrism; it is to stretch logic.”

WJC

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The assault on the Capitol, and a president’s precipitous fall

In Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post on January 7, 2021 at 7:15 pm

By the time the contents of the “smoking gun” tape were made public and revealed beyond doubt his guilty role in covering up the seminal crime of the Watergate scandal, President Richard Nixon was probably doomed, politically.

The scandal — which broke in June 1972 when burglars linked to his reelection campaign were arrested inside Democratic National headquarters — was after two years of periodic disclosures pointing to Nixon’s impeachment and almost-certain conviction and removal.

The release of the so-called “smoking gun” tape in early August 1974 removed all questions about Nixon’s continuing in office. What remained of his political support evaporated. Most memorably, Congressman Charles E. Wiggins, who was among Nixon’s most ardent backers, said the tape’s content led him to the ”painful conclusion” that Nixon should leave the presidency.

He did so August 9, 1974 (and not because of the reporting by the Washington Post; the newspaper’s crucial role in Watergate is a media-driven myth).

But not even Nixon among U.S. presidents experienced such an abrupt loss of authority and political power as has Donald Trump in the past 30 hours or so, since hundreds of his supporters marched from a rally to the Capitol and forced their way in — ostensibly to protest irregularities and anomalies in the November presidential election.

The assault came as Congress was meeting to certify Joe Biden’s election victory.

The intruders were apparently emboldened by Trump’s defiant remarks to the rally a short time before. “We will never concede” the loss of the election, the president declared. “It will never happen. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved. Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore.”

As dimensions emerged today of the deadly and almost-surreal assault on the Capitol, it became equally clear how unlikely the president is to be rehabilitated, politically. His presumed goal of reclaiming the White House in the 2024 election is now, almost certainly, foreclosed. That election is distant and much, of course, will change before then.

But the stunning assault — and accompanying images of flag-waving Trump supporters overwhelming Capitol police, smashing windows, and swarming the halls and offices of Congress — will surely persist as formidable barriers to his returning to high office.

It also has become clear that the country probably could not tolerate another frenzied four years of Trump, his narcissism, self-absorption, and frequent recitation of grievances, real and perceived. With 13 days remaining in his term, the country has reached what has been called the end of Trump.

Meanwhile, a few prominent members of his administration have resigned. Among them was Trump’s transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, who is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Former cabinet officers like William Barr, who served 22 months as Trump’s attorney general, condemned the assault. Barr said it was “outrageous and despicable.”

And a Republican back-bencher in Congress, Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, declared: “All indications are that the president has become unmoored, not just from his duty, nor even his oath, but from reality itself.” Kinzinger said Trump should be removed by invoking the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provides for a president’s replacement in the event of incapacitation.

Whether that happens, the hemorrhaging of Trump’s political capital was certainly remarkable in swiftness and magnitude. In that sense, Trump was even more Nixonian than Nixon.

WJC

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