Actually, Michael DID say it was personal


Forgive me for going into Cliff Clavin mode here, but…

I had a little fun with the "Godfather" cliche of business-vs.-personal in my Sunday column. But it’s a little-known fact that in the novel (as opposed to the movie), Michael Corleone did say it was personal, and not business.

The irony is that the "it’s not personal… it’s strictly business" line is probably the most quoted from the movie. It’s used in business, sports, anywhere and anytime American males do something distasteful for which they do not wish to be held morally responsible. It’s like the kinder, gentler, all-American version of the Nazis’ "I vas only followink orders."

Hey, I’ve been guilty of using it, to help me separate personal feelings for a newsmaker from the responsibility to report or comment without reference to those feelings (Hey, he’s a nice guy, but this is business…). But it can be a pious copout, if you’re a real human being.

And that was Mario Puzo’s point. In fact, the central theme of the novel, and of other works by Puzo, such as The Fourth K, was the exploration of the personal as opposed to larger societal obligation, such as to the rule of law. The seduction of The Godfather is that you are invited to care about these characters personally, and forget that they are unapologetic, sometimes murderous, criminals.

Anyway, the central speech in the novel occurs just before Michael goes off to kill Sollozzo and the police captain. He’s speaking to Tom Hagen:

…Tom, don’t let anybody kid you. It’s all personal, every bit of business…. They call itPacino business, OK. But it’s personal as hell. You know where I learned that from? The Don. My old man. The Godfather. If a bolt of lightning hit a friend of his the old man would take it personal. He took my going into the Marines personal. That’s what makes him great. The Great Don. He takes everything personal. Like God. He knows every feather that falls from the tail of a sparrow or however the hell it goes. Right?…

It’s the epiphany around which the whole story is based. But somehow, as great as the movie is, that got left out. We were left with the opposite impression of the point. Odd, isn’t it?

7 thoughts on “Actually, Michael DID say it was personal

  1. Brad Warthen

    This is a silly thing to confess, but blogs are about silliness and confession, so I’ll go ahead….
    This is one of those posts that I really enjoy, and look forward to having a discussion about… and nobody bites. This happens to me all the time.
    And this isn’t about me wanting to talk trivia. This is actually an important subject, one that goes to the core of what civilization is about, and yet one that on some level, most of us are somewhat ambivalent about — consciously or unconsciously.
    I say that because I’m guessing that most of my readers are with me on one point — they are four-square behind the concept of the rule of law. If that were not a core value for me, I wouldn’t do what I do. I’d probably go make a bunch of money instead.
    And yet, whenever we’ve had a discussion about favorite movies here, most of you — with the notable exception of bud, who is consistently opposed to violence, and good for him — will put “The Godfather” near the tops of your lists. I certainly do.
    And what is the appeal of “The Godfather?” Well, in spite of all that talk about putting “business” ahead of the personal, it’s really about putting the personal ahead of EVERYTHING. It’s about looking out for your family, and your loyal friends, ahead of anything and everything, including and maybe especially such abstractions as the law.
    And somehow this appeals to us, in spite of all our ideals.
    “The Godfather” places a veneer of cultural differences over this. It contrasts a warm-blooded Mediterranean ethic against Teutonic abstractions — a culture in which a man is not a man unless he looks out for his family and friends first and foremost. Sicily transplanted to America. A culture in which distrust of the law, a fundamental belief that the law is for others and not for you, implanted in a land where the law is of and by and for the people.
    But it’s not just a Sicilian thing, as you discover if you read Puzo’s The Fourth K. That’s about a fictional president who just happens to be a member of the Kennedy family (hence the K) whose daughter is executed by terrorists on live television. And President K makes the same decision that Michael Corleone did when confronted with Sollozzo’s ruthless determination to kill his father — he uses all the power he has to GET THEM, superseding the Constitution or statutory limits or diplomatic niceties or anything else that might inhibit him. He uses the full de facto power of the commander in chief to charge through any and all obstacles between him and the terrorists.
    This was of course written before 9/11, and some would see analogies, but our responses after 9/11 were modest compared to those of President K. He, for instance, would not have let Pakistani sovereignty stand in the way of getting at Osama bin Laden for seven years, if that was who he was after.
    But if you consider the implications of the personal vs. business you CAN get into some of the issues we’ve dealt with in the War on Terror, such Constitution vs. expediency issues as Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. Not quite the same, but similar.
    Anyway, it’s an intriguing subject. And it’s not just about movie trivia.

  2. martin

    For me, the most “personal” issue is why did GW Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld feel so compelled to invent the reasons to go into Iraq?
    Is it oil and Halliburton or the most incredible neo-con repudiation of what GHW Bush left undone in the first Gulf War. He had rational, diplomatic reasons for not going to Baghdad and his son and former Chief of Staff said, with their actions, he was an idiot not to do it.
    Does this cause hurt feelings in the Bush family or is it just ignored? Did GHW Bush change his mind about what he did not do and his son and Cheney just righted the wrong for him?
    Personal seems to be all over this one (and it’s not a good reason to kill 4000+ soldiers) and I wonder if we will ever get it figured out.

  3. Reader

    I can’t resist. I don’t really think there is anywhere in the whole Bible that Jesus talked about the tailfeathers of a sparrow. But I am still researching. It is a great passtime while these lunatics are mortgaging their intelligence, souls and futures for Obama. I thought the roll call thing at the Dems’ convention was supposed to be where the tables are turned and Bamy grabs his marbles and storms out.

  4. Brad Warthen

    No, I don’t think there is. I think Michael is sort of demonstrating a) his lack of Biblical knowledge, and b) the fact that he doesn’t really care about that lack, hence his “or however the hell it goes.”
    What he’s thinking of is that there are several passages in the Bible that demonstrate how God takes a personal interest even in small things to which men attach little value. For instance, Luke 12:6… “Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God.”
    Or Matthew 10:29… “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father…”

  5. Reader

    That’s where I was getting, too. I think he was mixing it up with hairs of the head quote. Which is a whole other theme. Don’t get me started because I take after my Dad — and he is losing it. In many ways.
    And I think having Barack Obama as his president will push him right over the proverbial edge. And the apple doesn’t fall far from tree. If you know what I mean…

  6. Mike Cakora

    Puzo’s godfather depicted a feudal system wherein the sovereign was the law and power was distributed to lesser lords and vassals, and the fiefs were the gambling trade or prostitution in a geographic area. Thanks to too many Scots and that thing called the Enlightenment, the West developed a taste for liberty, the rule of law, and open economic systems. Folks found ways to trust others who were not kin or vassals.
    Among the notions inherent in “anglosphere” is the rule of law and ability of folks to organize themselves and develop trust based not on kinship, but adherence to law, objective standards that apply to all regardless of station or birthright. A similar exercise involves comparing lawlessness to latitude: the farther north one travels from the Mediterranean, the greater respect for law one finds.
    Sometimes law and traditional enforcement don’t help, especially when the risk is existential. Brutal methods have been used at against organized crime as you have cited in references to Sean Connery’s Jim Malone. That’s also part of the point with Bush’s war on terror, resorting to military means when one’s opponents just won’t comply with subpoenas.
    My favorite example is H. Ross Perot’s Operation Hotfoot. What’s a no-nonsense businessman to do when the government won’t or can’t get two employees freed from a foreign jail? Take matters into one’s own hands. Even though I would never vote for Perot the politician, he did exhibit considerable bravery, but that’s because he took this matter quite personally.

  7. Brad Warthen

    I think Reader is taking this election personally. It’s strictly business, but he’s taking it very, very personally, as Sonny would say.
    Yes, Mike, you’re right — it’s an Anglo-American-vs. Mediterranean kind of thing. There are certain cultures, some of them in this hemisphere, where a man who gains power is expected to use that power to look after his family and friends or he is not a real man, as the Don might have put it, being Old School.
    I think the reason Puzo wrote The Fourth K was to try to consider the issue of the Rule of Law vs. the personal outside of the cultural consideration.
    Of course, a character named Kennedy is not Anglo. Nor was Officer Malone.

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