'Follow the Money' Quote From 'All The President's Men' Explained, With Context
The rule for uncovering political corruption is “Follow the money” -- but this became common thanks to the Watergate scandal movie All The President’s Men (1976). The movie line guides protagonists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman) in their quest to figure out the suspicious mess surrounding President Richrd Nixon. Even today, you'll hear the words spouted by talking heads on cable news -- but what do they really mean?
Directed by Alan Pakula and written by the immortal William Goldman. the film was based on the book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. However, Goldman only adapted the first part of the book that covered the investigative process undertaken by Woodward and Bernstein. The movie was nominated for eight Oscars, winning four, and forever framing the events of Watergate, for better and for worse.
'Follow The Money,' The Line In Context
In the movie, the line is spoken by Deep Throat, a government official who wants to remain anonymous, to Woodward (Redford) during a secret meeting at a parking garage. Here's how the scene plays out:
Bob Woodward: The story is dry. All we've got are pieces. We can't seem to figure out what the puzzle is supposed to look like. John Mitchell resigns as the head of CREEP, and says that he wants to spend more time with his family. I mean, it sounds like bulls**t, we don't exactly believe that...
Deep Throat: No, heh, but it's touching. Forget the myths the media's created about the White House. The truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.
Bob Woodward: Hunt's come in from the cold. Supposedly he's got a lawyer with $25,000 in a brown paper bag.
Deep Throat: Follow the money.
Bob Woodward: What do you mean? Where?
Deep Throat: Oh, I can't tell you that.
Bob Woodward: But you could tell me that.
Deep Throat: No, I have to do this my way. You tell me what you know, and I'll confirm. I'll keep you in the right direction if I can, but that's all. Just... follow the money.
Deep Throat Never Said 'Follow The Money'
The everlasting line of “Follow the money” uttered by Deep Throat (who was a real person, later revealed to be Mark Felt), never actually happened, and it doesn't exist in Woodward & Bernstein's book. When asked who came up with it, Woodward and Goldman each gave credit to the other.
The line might have been pilfered from the public record. Fred Shapiro, writing for Freakonomics.com, found this statement from Henry J. Peterson in a transcript of a 1974 Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the nomination of Earl J. Silbert to be United States Attorney:
I would say, ‘Follow the money, Earl, because that’s where it’s going to be.’ Unfortunately, we did not get it following the money because the records were either nonexistent or were destroyed.
The dialogue between Hoffman and Redford flows so naturally because they purposely memorized each other's lines. The idea was that it would allow them to finish each other's lines and create the type of chemistry that existed between Woodward and Bernstein.
Follow What Money... And Where?
In All The President's Men, Woodward and Bernstein have discovered that the Comittee To Re-Elect The President passed money to men believed to be burglars. The crew of five had broken into the Democratic National Committee headquarters, which was located in the Watergate Building in Washington, DC. The existence of payments connecting "burglars" to a political group working on behalf of the U.S. president is fishy, to say the least. From the beginning, the reporter-protagonists are trying to figure out why the burglars (who were actually tying to install wiretaps to spy on the DNC) were paid with money from Republican donors, and how far up the chain of command the scheme reaches.
In a sense, Woodward and Bernstein have been "following the money" long before Deep Throat advises them to.
Still, the advice is useful, taking into account another line: "The truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand." Deep Throat is assuring the reporters, who think they've reached a dead end, that payments were authorized by powerful people in Nixon's inner circle, and that they made mistakes.
'Follow The Money' Is Only Part Of The Watergate Story
"Follow the money" is good advice for journalists -- if a payment has been made to a low-level operative to carry out some shady business, there's likely a story if the source of the money can be discovered.
But in the Watergate saga, it wasn't the payments themselves that brought Nixon's presidency down, it was the endless coverup, which became a coverup of a coverup, with associated perjury and unethical behavior. The muddling of the money trail and Nixon's fall is what W. Joseph Campbell calls a "media myth" -- an oversimplication or falsehood that makes a story easily digestible, which over time and through repetition becomes accepted truth. Media myths often occur when a large event is said to hinge on a single moment, quote or photograph. Campbell writes:
The line suggests that rolling up the scandal was accomplished by identifying, pursuing, and reporting on an illicit money trail. Its purported centrality to understanding the Watergate scandal is an important reason why “follow the money” crossed smoothly from the silver screen to the vernacular and lives on. But the Watergate scandal was more than a matter of a money trail. In the end, Nixon’s attempts to obstruct justice by covering up the break-in at headquarters Democratic national committee headquarters in 1972 brought down his presidency.
If the Nixon administration had come out early and admitted wrongdoing, would it have made a difference? Would Nixon's presidency have survived? Possibly. After all, the break-in itself had no real effect. As the coverup spiraled out of control (or grew like a cancer, as John Dean described it), Nixon willingly participated in obstruction of justice, bribery and blackmail.
A Massive Undertaking
Robert Redford got the ball rolling on “All The President’s Men” by taking a major interest in the comings and goings of Watergate. Apparently, Redford even influenced the book by recommending to Woodward and Bernstein that they lay out the story like a detective story. At first, the reporters didn’t want to insert themselves in the story but eventually realized Redford was right. "He laid the seed for that in that first phone call," Woodward later said.
'Follow The Money'
Initially, Redford wanted to produce the movie as a black and white documentary but the studio shot that idea down immediately. Due to the cost of the book rights, $450,000, and the weightiness of the topic, Warner Bros. knew it needed movie stars to headline the blockbuster. When Redford relented on starring in the movie, he first thought of Al Pacino to play Bernstein. Eventually, the studio settled on the supremely talented Dustin Hoffman.
A Screenplay Controversy
Redford has said that he didn’t intentionally hire one of the greatest screenwriters ever, William Goldman who won an Oscar for “Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid.” "I didn't mean to involve [Goldman] in the project, and I wasn't commissioning him as the screenwriter. I was troubled from the beginning about Bill, but friendship kept it going."
Supposedly, a mix-up left Goldman assuming he was adapting the book. Let’s just say Redford’s word isn’t to be trusted in this case; we’ll get to that in a second. Amazingly, that wasn’t the only screenplay squabble during this movie!
Unbeknownst to Goldman, Bernstein and his girlfriend, Nora Ephron tried to write their own script after everyone involved poo-pooed Goldman’s first swing at the script. According to Woodward, “Carl joked at one point that it(the original script) reads like Butch Woodward and the Sundance Bernstein.”
A Predictable Response
It offended Goldman that two non-screen writers would deign to think they could do a better job. Redford knew what Goldman’s response would be, “Jesus—Goldman’s gonna walk in here in ten minutes and see that you guys have written a screenplay, and he’s gonna take one look at this, refuse to touch it, and walk out the door and go to his lawyer.”
Woodward said, “Goldman came in and proceeded to do exactly what Redford predicted. He was offended. We kept saying, ‘Oh, Bill, can’t you read it, take what you want, and leave the rest, rip it up?’ But he was having none of it.”
Only one scene from Bernstein’s screenplay made it into the movie, one of the few scenes that was completely fictional. Later on, Bernstein issued a mea culpa, “I would say in retrospect that whatever Goldman says about the self-aggrandizing notion of that screenplay, it might well be right," he said in 2016. "I would not say that our treatment of him was sterling.")
Redford Tries To Take Full Credit
As if there weren’t enough controversies involving the “All The President’s Men” script. Many years after the film, Redford made a documentary falsely claiming that he actually wrote 90% of the film.
Thankfully, at least one person took an interest in the truth. Richard Stayton, editor in chief of Written By Magazine, compared the final shooting script and all of Goldman’s scripts and found “similar, sometimes identical scenes throughout. Complete sequences of dialogue carried from draft to draft to draft, verbatim … The script had William Goldman's distinct signature on each page." Stayton’s conclusion was "Goldman was the sole author of All the President's Men. Period. End of paper trail."