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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