Every viral video or sensational clip that receives airplay or notoriety has a backstory, and Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer is a documentary that works to add context to one of the most famous suicides ever captured on video. On January 22, 1987, Pennsylvania Treasurer R. Budd Dwyer, after being found guilty of accepting bribes from a Californian accounting firm, called a press conference before numerous officials and journalists. He was presumably going to announce his resignation, as his sentencing was scheduled to take place the next day. Following a four minute speech about his wife, kids, his innocence, and his legacy as Treasurer, Dwyer pulled a .357 revolver from a manila envelope, pointed it in his mouth, and shot himself, dropping dead instantly having broadcast his suicide to numerous Television stations.
One of the most tragic things about Dwyer's case is that what he did, or allegedly did, while in office, is something that is more-or-less legal in state and federal government today. Accepting bribes, or "political donations," isn't uncommon and since the dawn of Citizens United, is something that special interest groups and lobbyists have been doing in excess. Honest Man works to tell Dwyer's side of the story, which has been shortchanged to the extreme act itself.
Dwyer's wife, children, and colleagues all appear in the documentary and recount his life and the case that eventually engulfed his life. Dwyer studied political science and accounting in college, eventually running for the general assembly when he graduated. Roy Wilt, a colleague and a legislator, comments how politics was who Budd was and how it took over his life as soon as he began running for the assembly. He goes on to say how Budd would never look at the donators who graciously gave money to his campaign, nor could he ever bring himself to ask for money. While intelligent and crafty, he was extraordinarily humble, especially for a politician.
Controversy began to plague his career once he became Pennsylvania's state Treasurer. When Dwyer wouldn't approve of state Governor Dick Thornburgh's wife's plane ticket as a business expenditure, he saw himself on the oust with the Governor. Right then and there, from the perspective of some, Dwyer seemed stubborn as a mule and somebody who was willing to fight over the smallest circumstances. Following this, Pennsylvania discovered that its state workers had grossly overpaid in their federal taxes because of the state withholding funds. This, in turn, led to dozens of accounting firms vying for a multimillion-dollar settlement contract in order to compensate each employee for the amount they overpaid. In 1986, Dwyer allegedly received a bribe from a California accounting firm that was trying to obtain the lofty contract, to which he plead not guilty to, wouldn't agree to a plea bargain, and stood trial in the case.
The main witness to Dwyer's act of taking the bribe, William Smith, even admits to lying under oath in the documentary, saying Dwyer took the bribe during a false testimony. Smith admits here that he is, as a result, responsible for Dwyer's subsequent suicide.
Dwyer's charisma and almost blue-collar, everyman charm is seen through each piece of archival footage shown in the documentary. He was a man of many commonalities, who in and of himself, didn't seem to have any interest in unethical dealings. During his famous final press conference, it was almost as if Dwyer couldn't believe he was in this situation; he seemed shocked, almost like a deer in headlights, as if he had no idea how he found himself in this situation and was more-or-less forced into it.
The death of Dwyer is one of the most bizarre but saddening political tragedies I have yet to read of, and Honest Man does a solid job at detailing it. It's a case that found itself captured in a whirlwind of hearsay and miscalculation that led to the death of an arguably innocent man. Dwyer's surviving children explain in the film not only their reactions to their father's suicide at the time, but how, despite the suicide video's ubiquitous presence online, this kind of thing could happen again. Dwyer's widow, Joanne Dwyer, who died a year before the release of this film, nicely states how we live in a society obsessed with violence, and in this case, violence without much regard to context or history. Both her and her children state how the impact of Dwyer as a political figure and his legacy have, as a result, taken a backseat to the sensationalism and act of his suicide. They're not wrong, and it's depressing to see a story where a sympathetic, and quite possibly innocent, politician has fallen on deaf ears in present time.
Directed by: James Dirschberger.