W. Joseph Campbell

The media myths of Watergate: Part Three

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 19, 2012 at 5:25 am

This is the third of five posts addressing prominent media-driven myths about the Watergate scandal, which began
unfolding 40 years ago this week with the foiled burglary at the headquarters in Washington of the Democratic National Committee.
This installment discusses the most famous made-up line of Watergate.

“Follow the money.” It’s the best-known, most popular turn-of-phrase associated with the Watergate scandal of 1972-74.

Felt: Never said it

It’s often said that “follow the money” was sage counsel offered by the stealthy, high-level “Deep Throat” source with whom Bob Woodward of the Washington Post periodically met as the scandal unfolded.

The guidance to “follow the money” supposedly proved crucial in understanding and unraveling the labyrinthine scandal that was Watergate.

Except that it really wasn’t.

“Deep Throat” never advised Woodward to “follow the money.”

The passage appears in no Watergate-related article or editorial in the Post until June 1981, nearly seven years after Nixon’s resignation. It doesn’t appear, either, in All the President’s Men, the book Woodward and his Post colleague, Carl Bernstein, wrote about their Watergate reporting.

Follow the money” was written into the screenplay of All the President’s Men, the cinematic adaptation of Woodward and Bernstein’s book.

The line was spoken by Hal Holbrook, the actor who played “Deep Throat” in the movie. (The real “Deep Throat” was self-revealed in 2005 to have been W. Mark Felt, a senior FBI official.)

Holbrook in All the President’s Men turned in a marvelous performance as a twitchy, conflicted, chain-smoking “Deep Throat.”

‘All the President’s Men,’ the movie

He delivered the line, “follow the money,” with such raspy assurance and conviction that it seemed for all the world to be vital to understanding the scandal that began unfolding 40 years ago.

Follow the money” is certainly Watergate’s most memorable and mythical phrase; it is so pithy and emphatic that it seems almost too good not to be true.

Indeed, “follow the money” tends to be treated with reverence by news media. A “credo,” it’s been called.

Take, for example, a recent post at the “Daily Intel” blog of New York Magazine. The blog post began by invoking the famous phrase, with emphasis:

Follow the money. The pithy investigative advice Woodward and Bernstein attributed to Deep Throat is still brilliant and important, whatever else the Watergate reporters may have embellished.”

Brilliant and important?

Made up is more like it.

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

Besides, Woodward and Bernstein already were on the money trail.

One of their most important stories was in reporting that a $25,000 check to Nixon’s reelection campaign had been deposited in the bank account of one of the Watergate burglars.

The scandal, though, was much more than Nixon’s improper use of campaign funds. The president was forced to resign because he obstructed justice by approving a plan to cover up the burglary at the Democratic National Committee.

The simplified, follow-the-money construct not only is inaccurate and misleading: It serves to deflect attention from the array of forces that combined to expose Nixon’s crimes.

As I note in my 2010 book Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s depth 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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