On the morning of Jan. 22, 1987, Pennsylvania State Treasurer R. Budd Dwyer, called a press conference. Most of the news crews and staff gathered in the room had assumed that Dwyer—who appeared agitated and nervous—would announce his resignation in light of his conviction in a bribery scandal.
Instead, Dwyer continued to claim of innocence and railed against the injustice of the justice system. At the end of his remarks, he pulled a .357 Magnum out of a Manila envelope, pleaded with people to either leave the room or step back. Dwyer then stuck the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He died within seconds of the gunshot.
James Dirschberger’s documentary Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer (2010) examines Dwyer’s personal and political life and tries to move the story beyond the specter of the politician’s death. The DIY film, which took five years for Dirschberger to fund and finish, is also a somber look at American politics and the questionable actions of the media in the aftermath of the tragedy.
Political scandals are nothing new and are anything but shocking these days. David Wu of Oregon just resigned in a sex scandal; presidential contender John Edwards’ clandestine affair and coverup destroyed his career; and former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich even appeared on Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice during his corruption scandal (though before his ultimate conviction, if that makes it any more palatable.)
But Dirschberger’s first feature-length film is an emotionally gripping documentary that treats the subject matter with respect. Ultimately, it’s up to the viewer to decide whether Dwyer was an innocent man caught up in the cutthroat politics, or whether he had a momentary lapse of judgment.
The 75-minute film begins with grainy news clips from the press conference and footage that sums up Dwyer’s life in a 30-second soundbites. It then segues into interviews with friends, colleagues and family to draw a profile of the small town farm boy raised in Meadville, Pennsylvania, who became a teacher before entering the political fray. In his 22 years of public service, Dwyer was elected to both the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and Senate before taking the office of the commonwealth’s Treasurer.
Along the way, Dwyer won over quite a few admirers and made a few enemies, one of whom was then-Pennylvania Governor Dick Thornberg. The film highlights two instances of Dwyer as political watchdog—he publicly announced his refusal to pay for the governor’s wife’s plane ticket to Germany with state funds and also documents the use and cost of state troopers to chauffeur the Thornbergs’ sons back and forth to boarding school in Massachusetts.
After setting the stage for the man’s character, the core of Dirschberger’s film rests on a very complicated conspiracy theory, which is a little difficult to follow in a single viewing. In essence, Dwyer was accused of accepting a bribe aka “campaign contribution” from John Torquato, Jr., a shady businessman. Torquato won the contract to install computer systems to determine refunds for state employees who had overpaid FICA taxes.
Dwyer was convicted on bribery, largely on the testimony of acquaintance William Smith (who was working for Torquato), even though money never changed hands. Jim West, the U.S. attorney prosecuting the case, argued that intent was enough to convict. In the film, the family insists that Dwyer never got a fair trial. And although Dwyer was offered a plea bargain and, according to West, the chance to make everything go away by resigning, Dwyer rejected all deals. He maintained his innocence throughout the trial and refused to step down from office.
Because he was convicted, Dwyer faced up to 55 years in prison, and the loss of pension benefits for his family. Dwyer’s wife, Joanne, who received the benefits because he died in office, gave what would be her final interview for the film, before her death in 2009. She says quite pointedly and poignantly of her late husband: “He was a product of a very, very poor justice system.”
Honest Man does dedicate a short chapter to Dwyer’s depression, last days, and the suicide itself. The music in the background and the raw emotions of the family onscreen add to the riveting story. It somehow manages to remain suspenseful even though the viewers already know what’s going to happen. Dirschberger does show the suicide, using the less graphic footage available from the press conference. It’s still horrific and tough to watch, no matter what angle. Some may argue that by showing the suicide, Dirschberger falls into the same category of media exploiting a family’s tragedy. But ultimately, its inclusion is a sad, yet necessary component to present a complete picture.
The denouement of the film examines the actions of the media leading up to and immediately following Dwyer’s death. The TV cameras in the room for the press conference recorded the entire episode on tape—these were the days before live feeds—and news editors had to decide what to air from the morning’s events. In one of the more sickening scenes, we watch photographers and TV reporters keep on filming even as they were asked to leave the room. In some of the frames, we see Dwyer’s body slumped against the wall.
Some news outlets chose to show the news conference up until the gunfire; others chose to freeze the image with the revolver in Dwyer’s mouth, airing only the audio; and other stations aired the entire taped incident without a warning of graphic content to viewer, something almost unthinkable today.
The Dwyer suicide story eventually morphs into one of self-reflection for the media, with reporters being interviewed on how the press conference affected them. Other clips reveal the decision-making processes behind airing the controversial content.
The members of the Dwyer family somewhat expectedly have a low-opinion of journalists: “People in the media to me tend to be a little self-righteous,” says son Rob Dwyer, noting the fact that no photographer rushed the podium to try and stop him, instead choosing to shoot frames of film instead.
“We have a subculture that glorifies anything that is horrifying,” adds Joanne.
Dirschberger’s film is decidedly in camp Dwyer, but many of the press or politicos involved in the 1987 case declined to be interviewed. His friends and family make a persuasive case that Dwyer was an innocent man who wanted to draw attention to his story and the failure of the justice system.
The film leaves it up to the viewer to decide on Dwyer’s guilt or innocence, and ultimately, only a few people really know the true story. What we do see is how Dwyer’s suicide became the story—and only for a brief moment—until this film provided long-missing background information. His wife asks whether we’d be paying any attention at all if Dwyer decided to go out quietly by taking sleeping pills instead.
It’s true. How fast would it take for a suicide at a press conference today to reach Twitter, Facebook and CNN? The old journalism adage still rings true: If it bleeds, it leads.