My Most-Quoted Movie Lines (No. 2)
2. “The truth is these are not very bright guys...and things got out of hand.”
Deep Throat in “All the President’s Men” (1976)
Screenplay by William Goldman
Man, I’ve been quoting this a lot this past decade.
It’s the first underground-garage meeting between Bob Woodward and Deep Throat and Woodward is asking about the bits and pieces he and Bernstein have gathered, which they don’t know how to fit together. He talks about John Mitchell resigning to spend more time with his family. “Sounds like bullshit,” he says, in that less-cynical time, that pre-Watergate time. “We don’t quite believe that.” “No,” Deep Throat adds, “but it’s touching.” Deep Throat sees not only the larger issue with Watergate but the larger issue with Woodward. So he says the line to steer him straight. “Forget the myths the media has created about the White House,” he says. “The truth is these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.”
The problem isn’t just the people in charge; the problem is our myths about the people in charge. We believe we live in a meritocracy. We believe—we still believe!—people are where they are through talent and hard work. Yet what accounts for success? If I had to make a list, it might look like this:
Maybe intelligence should go on there. Maybe talent. But replacing what? I almost feel like I’m being charitable. I didn’t include lying, for example, or bullshit. Maybe that’s packaged under “salesmanship.”
Forget the myths...
I first began to think of the line not when I worked at the University Book Store in the mid-90s but during the five years I spent at Microsoft Games. The bookstore was what it was and I expected little from it. But wasn't Microsoft this mega-successful company? Shouldn’t it know better? Yet in some ways it was worse. The people in charge assumed their success meant they were smart, and that their smarts would ensure continued success. This was in the late 1990s. They were arrogant, and not very bright, and things got out of hand.
Now it seems I can’t go a month without saying the line. A friend will complain about something at work, something stupid his boss is doing, something idiotic and expensive the higher-ups are planning. “Why do they think this’ll work? How could they be so dumb?”
The truth is these are not very bright guys...
Don’t get me started on business and politics: “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” Mission Accomplished, “Bring ‘em on,” Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, “You’re doing a heckuva job, Brownie,” the Terri Schiavo case, the U.S. attorney scandal, credit default swaps, Bear Stearns, Lehman Bros. “They were doing what with the prisoners?” “They were doing what with our money?” “They thought they could get away with what?”
...and things got out of hand.
The line is like “The Wire” before “The Wire.” It explains everything. It’s not just for the Nixon administration anymore.