W. Joseph Campbell

‘Follow the money,’ again and again

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on March 21, 2011 at 7:24 am

“Follow the money.

“That advice from Watergate informant ‘Deep Throat’ led Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward to the truth that uncovered corruption in the nation’s public office. The concept applies to situations beyond the Oval Office, though. The commitment of a significant amount of money reveals the motivation (and the identity) of the spender.”

So read the opening lines of a commentary posted yesterday at the online site of the Terre Haute Tribune-Star in Indiana — yet another news outlet to indulge in the most famous made-up line of Watergate, “follow the money.”

The guidance to “follow the moneywasn’t offered by Woodward’s stealthy “Deep Throat” source during the Watergate scandal, which broke in 1972 with the break-in at headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in Washington, D.C. (“Deep Throat” was revealed in 2005 to have been W. Mark Felt, the second-ranking FBI official in the early days of Watergate.)

What’s more, the line “follow the money” didn’t appear in any Watergate-related article or commentary published by the Post until 1981 — years after the scandal had brought about the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

As I’ve noted at Media Myth Alert, the line was written into the screenplay of All the President’s Men, the cinematic version of the book Woodward and his colleague, Carl Bernstein, wrote about their Watergate reporting.

The line was spoken by the actor Hal Holbrook, who turned in a marvelous performance as the “Deep Throat” source in All the President’s Men, the movie.

Holbrook, who recently turned 86, delivered his lines about “follow the money” with such quiet assurance and knowing insistence that it sounded for all the world as if it really were guidance vital to rolling up Watergate and identifying Nixon’s misconduct.

Except that in real life, such advice wouldn’t have taken Woodward very far — certainly not to the point of determining Nixon’s guilty role in the crimes of Watergate, certainly not “to the truth” about the scandal.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, my mythbusting book that came out last year, some 20 men associated with Nixon’s administration or his 1972 reelection campaign went to jail for crimes linked to Watergate.

Rolling up a scandal of such dimension, I write in Getting It Wrong, “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 add, “Nixon likely would have served out his [second] 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 authorizing payments of thousands of dollars in hush money.”

What cost Nixon the presidency wasn’t of the improper use of campaign funds but his efforts to obstruct justice in the FBI’s investigation of the break-in and related crimes.

It’s likely we’ll encounter many other references in weeks ahead to “follow the money.” After all, the 35th anniversary of the release of All the President’s Men falls next month.

And already, the University of Texas at Austin — repository for Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate papers — has scheduled three programs related to All the President’s Men, the movie.


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