W. Joseph Campbell

Hat-tipping ‘On Language’

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 26, 2011 at 7:36 am

The New York Times yesterday announced it was ending “On Language,” a quirky and popular column that has appeared 32 years in its Sunday magazine.

For 30 years, it was the venue for the sometimes-obscure, sometimes-brilliant work of William Safire, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist who died in 2009.

Of the column’s passing, the incumbent writer of “On Language” stated that time had come  “to bid adieu, after some 1,500 dispatches from the frontiers of language.”

That vague and unsatisfactory explanation notwithstanding, the end of “On Language” offers an occasion to revisit, and offer a tip of the chapeau to, Safire’s laudable effort to call attention to a prominent media myth — that famous, often-invoked but totally made-up line of Watergate, “follow the money.”

Safire, 2006

In an “On Language” column titled “Follow the Proferring Duck” and published August 3, 1997, Safire wrote:

“Who first said ‘Follow the money’? Everybody knows the answer: ‘Deep Throat,’ the anonymous source quoted by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their book ‘All the President’s Men.’ Those three words from a mysterious Administration official whose identity is unknown even today impelled the young journalists to money laundered in Mexico and ultimately to payments to burglars and a Nixon White House slush fund.

“But wait,” Safire added, “thanks to Daniel Schorr, the National Public Radio commentator … we now have a new and disconcerting take on the origin of the famous phrase.”

Safire explained that Schorr had searched All the President’s Men for the phrase, and had failed to find it.

“Nor was it in any of the Watergate reporting in the Washington Post,” Safire wrote. The line first appeared in the cinematic version of All the President’s Men. It was spoken by the actor Hal Holbrook, who played the stealthy “Deep Throat” character.

“The screenplay was written by William Goldman,” Safire noted. “When Schorr called him, the famed screenwriter at first insisted that the line came from the book; when proved mistaken about that, he said: ‘I can’t believe I made it up. I was in constant contact with Woodward while writing the screenplay. I guess he made it up.’

“Schorr then called Woodward, who could not find the phrase in his exhaustive notes of Watergate interviews. The reporter told Schorr he could no longer rely on his memory as to whether Deep Throat had said the line and was inclined to believe that Goldman had invented it.”

Safire added:

“If the line was indeed a fiction, as it seems to be, what does that portend for its nonfictional source? Schorr only poses the question, but the irony is this:

“When recently asked on ‘Meet the Press’ what the lasting legacy of Watergate was after a quarter-century, Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post (brilliantly portrayed in the movie by Jason Robards Jr.) replied with the words of William Goldman: ‘Follow the money.'”

Indeed, the transcript of the program shows Bradlee did say that.

(In 2005, W. Mark Felt came forward to say was Watergate’s “Deep Throat.” Not long afterward, Goldman took credit for having written “follow the money” into the screenplay.)

If anything, “follow the money” has become more popular — and invoked more often — in the years since Safire wrote the column.

As I’ve noted at Media Myth Alert, “follow the money” is pithy, punchy, and easily remembered; like many other media myths, it is readily applicable.

And 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.

“Follow the money” lives on for other reasons, too. After all, it supposedly represented vital guidance in rolling up the Watergate scandal.

Its purported decisiveness certainly helps explain why the line crossed so smoothly from the silver screen to the vernacular.

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

Safire, by the way, had been a speechwriter for Nixon during his presidency. And Safire used an “On Language” column in 1984 to challenge another hardy media myth — that Nixon ran for president in 1968 claiming to have a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam.


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