W. Joseph Campbell

Following the money on 37th anniversary of Nixon’s fall

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post on August 9, 2011 at 12:55 am

Nixon resigns, 1974

It’s somehow fitting on this, the 37th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s resignation, to direct attention to the myth and hyperbole that embrace the best-known line of the Watergate scandal, the line that supposedly helped bring him down.

That line, of course, is “follow the money,” which purportedly was crucial advice given the Washington Post by a super-secret, high-level source code-named “Deep Throat.”

Follow the money” was said to have been so telling and effective that it’s still cited as exemplary guidance applicable in journalism, politics, and finance.

Just yesterday, for example, Barry Nolan, a journalist and contributor to Boston Magazine’sBoston Daily” blog, invoked the famous phrase, writing:

“Any time you really want to know why a vote happened the way it did, the single best piece of advice ever given came from ‘Deep Throat,’ the shadowy tipster in the Watergate scandal. ‘Follow the money,’ he told the Washington Post reporters.”

It may seem like stellar advice, but it’s guidance that the “Deep Throat” source offered only in the movies.

As I’ve discussed at Media Myth Alert, “follow the money” is Watergate’s most famous made-up line.

The phrase was written into the screenplay of All the President’s Men, the 1976 cinematic version of the book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post.

“Follow the money” appears nowhere in Woodward and Bernstein’s 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.

Nor did “follow the money” appear in any Watergate-related news article or editorial in the Post until June 1981, nearly seven years after Nixon’s resignation.

Nor did “Deep Throat” — who was self-identified in 2005 as W. Mark Felt, formerly the FBI’s second-ranking official — utter the line in his periodic meetings with Woodward. (And Felt/”Deep Throat” didn’t meet Bernstein until 2008.)

Follow the money” was memorably intoned not by Mark Felt but by Hal Holbrook, the actor who played “Deep Throat” in All the President’s Men.

As I’ve noted, Holbrook turned in a marvelous performance as a tormented, conflicted, and stealthy “Deep Throat.”

Holbrook delivered the “follow the money” line with such conviction and steely assurance, that it seemed for all the world to offer a way through the labyrinth of the Watergate scandal.

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

Nixon resigned 37 years ago today not because he misused campaign funds but because he sought to obstruct justice by covering up the signal crime of Watergate, the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in June 1972.

The simplified follow-the-money  interpretation of Watergate effectively deflects attention from the decisive forces that ultimately forced Nixon from office.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s intricacy and dimension 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 write, “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” that cost him the presidency.


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