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Budd Dwyer: His TV Suicide And Everything That Led Up To It

1980s | January 22, 2021

(Eighty Four Films, LLC)

On January 22, 1987, Robert Budd Dwyer, the acting Pennsylvania state treasurer, pulled out a .357 Magnum during a press conference, put it in his mouth, and pulled the trigger in front of reporters, family members, and untold numbers of home viewers. Why would a small-time state politician do such a thing?

Who Was Budd Dwyer?

Budd Dwyer was into politics from an early age. After graduating from Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, he entered the local scene before winning a seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives as a Republican in 1970. He went on to become a member of the Pennsylvania State Senate before running for state treasurer in 1980. 

During his stint as treasurer, investigators in Pennsylvania learned that a clerical error caused some state workers to overpay millions of dollars in taxes. Computer Technology Associates won the bid to sort the whole mess out, and a few months later, an anonymous source told Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh that C.T.A. bribed Pennsylvania officials, including Dwyer, to make sure they did.

(Dwyer family/Wikimedia Commons)

Dwyer's Legal Troubles

In 1984, Dwyer learned that he was facing charges of conspiracy, mail fraud, perjury, and interstate transportation in aid of racketeering. He vehemently denied any connection with C.T.A. and canceled their contract with the state, but all his attempts to thwart the federal government's investigation into the bribery charges were in vain. Prosecutors offered Dwyer a plea deal of five years in prison for one charge of receiving a bribe if he resigned from office and cooperated with the rest of the investigation, but he refused, claiming to the end that he was innocent.

On December 18, 1986, Dwyer was found guilty of 11 counts of conspiracy, mail fraud, perjury, and interstate transportation in aid of racketeering. The verdict carried a possible sentence of 55 years in prison, a $300,000 fine, and the loss of all rights his family had to his government pension.

(Eighty Four Films, LLC/Wikimedia Commons)

The Infamous Press Conference

Two days before Dwyer was due to be sentenced on January 23, 1987, he met with two of his staffers to discuss where he could go from his unfortunate position. During the meeting, Dwyer jotted down a note that was found later by his family. It read, "I enjoy being with Jo so much, the next 20 years or so would have been wonderful. Tomorrow is going to be so difficult and I hope I can go through with it."

The next day, January 22, Dwyer held a press conference in Harrisburg, where he read a prepared statement:

Last May, I told you that after the trial, I would give you the story of the decade. To those of you who are shallow, the events of this morning will be that story. But to those of you with depth and concern, the real story will be what I hope and pray results from this morning: in the coming months and years, the development of a true justice system here in the United States ... I am going to die in office in an effort to '...see if the shame[-ful] facts, spread out in all their shame, will not burn through our civic shamelessness and set fire to American pride.' Please tell my story on every radio and television station and in every newspaper and magazine in the U.S. Please leave immediately if you have a weak stomach or mind since I don't want to cause physical or mental distress. Joanne, Rob, Dee Dee, I love you! Thank you for making my life so happy. Goodbye to you all on the count of three. Please make sure that the sacrifice of my life is not in vain.

Following his statement, in front of television cameras, reporters, and what was left of his staffers, Dwyer retrieved a .357 Magnum from an envelope and put the gun in his mouth before pulling the trigger. He died immediately.

(Dwyer family/Wikimedia Commons)

The Immediate Aftermath Of Dwyer's Suicide

The hours days following Dwyer's death were tense and full of confusion. Many believe today that it was aired live to unsuspecting programmers and viewers alike, but it's actually worse than that: Every network that broadcast the press conference aired it later in the day, with varying levels of editing. Some stations cut the footage moments before he pulled the trigger, but others broadcast the entire event without warning.

Dwyer's family was understandably shocked. His son, Rob, insists that no one had any indication of what was going to happen that day. He himself only heard the news at home with his mother and sister. Fred Cusick, a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer who was sitting on the floor at the front of the room when Dwyer revealed his gun, later lamented, "I should have run and grabbed him when he pulled out the envelope. I knew that was it." Dwyer's death may seem senseless, but by preventing his sentencing, he secured his family's rights to his government pension, in addition to survivor benefits totaling $1.28 million.

(Reprise Records)

A Mixed Legacy

Dwyer's suicide reverberated not only through the political and news media landscapes but the art world as well. Footage of the horrific moment circulated through the underground video world of the late '80s and early '90s as one of the earliest viral videos, exposing it to rock musicians like Marilyn Manson and Faith No More, who subsequently referenced Dwyer's death in their music and videos.

It was the previously little-known rock band Filter, however, that became famous for singing about Dwyer. They scored a massive hit with the 1995 track "Hey Man Nice Shot," but they also suffered backlash from those who perceived them as making light of (and money from) a tragic event. In 2017, singer Richard Patrick defended the song:

It's not like I’m saying, "Hey R. Budd Dwyer, hey man, nice shot." I’m just kind of talking about a phenomenon of someone going to the extreme to make a point—and that was what the whole song was about. "Hey man, nice shot—you’ve made a point" ... Cause I don’t think anyone remembers that he was trying to say he was innocent, they just remember he killed himself.

There are multiple tragedies inherent to the suicide of R. Budd Dwyer, but the greatest injustice of all is that he really was innocent. In the 2010 documentary Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer, William T. Smith, a former chairman of the Dauphin County Republican Committee and one of the key trial witnesses at Dwyer's trial, admitted that he lied under oath to reduce his sentence and keep his wife from going to trial for conspiracy.

Tags: 1980s | death | politics

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.