Last Friday, Oscar-winning writer William Goldman died at the age of 87. Movie-goers and Hollywood enjoyed his wry wit and sardonic wisdom, but investigative reporters worldwide are forever in his debt for giving us the single best lead for tracking down public corruption and nefarious politicos.
Goldman wrote the screenplay for the movie adapted from Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s book, “All the Presidents Men,” which follows the downfall of President Richard M. Nixon after the Watergate break-in.
During a pivotal scene in the 1976 movie, Woodward’s character, played by Robert Redford, is told by his anonymous government source known as Deep Throat to, “Follow the money.”
Nowhere is the line, “Follow the money” found in Woodward and Bernstein’s book. It is Goldman’s invention and pure reporting genius.
But tracking a money trail can be used in a broader context to understand why things happen the way they do in government.
Let’s put aside, for now, the notion of public service and admit that a majority of what happens in politics is tied to the wants of one particular group or another. These groups or individuals, commonly referred to in the pejorative as special interests, are not necessarily evil. They just want what’s best for themselves and their interests.
During her first State of the State address nearly a year ago, Gov. Kay Ivey staked her ground with workforce development, job creation and an education proposal under her, “Strong Start, Strong Finish: from pre-K to workforce,” plan. Gov. Ivey has a detailed strategy for success, but her goals will be challenged by those who prosper under a system that is burdened with an entrenched bureaucracy, as well as those who dine off the Education Trust Fund without actually being a part of educating Alabamians.
Likewise, Alabama’s Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon lists infrastructure, improving public schools, school security and stronger ethics laws as a priority. To enumerate the special interests that will line up to pick away at his goals would be a nearly impossible task.
Neither Ivey or McCutcheon will be swayed by personal gain as was their predecessors, but they will need a well-placed group of watchers to see who will work to undermine their best efforts. To do so means following the money.
Goldman wrote many other novels and screenplays, most notably, “The Princess Bride,” “Marathon Man” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the pair’s only hope of escaping a rapidly approaching posse is to cliff dive hundreds of feet into a raging river. During the tense moment, Sundance reveals he can’t swim to which Butch chuckles, “Are you crazy, the fall will probably kill you.”
Butch and Sundance were not winners, but they rarely doubted as an exchange between the pair shows.
The Sundance Kid: “You just keep thinking Butch, that’s what you’re good at.”
Butch Cassidy: “I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals.”
Goldman’s characters displayed ironic humor in the face of defeat and generally find a way, at least for a moment, to turn a loss into a victory. Sometimes leadership is simply the ability to make it from one failure to the next.
An enduring line from the Princess Bride is, “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” However, any wise practitioner of the political arts knows as Goldman points out, there’s not much money in the revenge business.
Another phrase from the Princess Bride which is a mainstay of the movie’s fans is, “Inconceivable,” repeatedly uttered by the stooge mastermind, Vizzini. Every action in government is conceivable because it is human nature at work.
In Goldman’s “Marathon Man,” Dustin Hoffman plays an oblivious long-distance runner who becomes entangled in a case of stolen gems and sadistic henchmen. During the film, Huffman’s character encounters a Nazi-dentist who drills Hoffman’s healthy teeth without painkillers, torturing him for the correct answer to the eternal question, “Is it safe?”
It’s politics, and it’s never safe. That is why there must be journalists who ask the tough question, dig for facts and report without fear or prejudice. We don’t see this as often as we should in state politics because there is a cost to truth-telling. But the price of not reporting is a price too high to measure.
Goldman was a genius who not only entertained us but made us think. In politics, we don’t all have to think alike, but it would be good to know that everyone is thinking.
With Butch and Sundance, he gave us a lesson in how hope springs eternal. In “Marathon Man,” we see that things are not always what they seem. “The Princess Bride” let us see how true love can conquer all, but in politics, follow the money if you want to know what’s really happening.
In the end Goldman summed up the human condition, “Life is pain, Highness! Anyone who says differently is selling something.” –The Princess Bride