Goodbye Paul

I first met Paul Harvey in the summer of 1966.  I was a student at Missouri State University in Springfield and a part time news anchor/reporter at KWTO Radio, "Keep Watching the Ozarks", the 4 stater regional radio giant which carried the biggest name in radio.  We all worshiped Paul Harvey.  We all wanted to sound that good and write that well — and we all knew we were doomed to fall short.  But we had something few of Paul’s more than 1300 other affiliates did:  A general manager who was personal friends with Paul.  Paul Harvey would occasionally drop by KWTO to visit with Ralph Foster, usually on a Friday, prior to a weekend of Ozarks-style fishing and float trips. And he’d do his radio shows from  KWTO.  That voice led all us first-timers to believe that God himself was about to walk into the newsroom, or at least the Hollywood version of the Almighty.  Those pipes could show up on the Richter Scale, and surely he’d be mega-scornful of any petty mistakes we made that day.

As it turns out, Paul Harvey was far from the pompous deity we’d conjured.  I’ve thought a lot about the best way to describe Paul Harvey, and I think this at least comes close:  He was a courtly old school  gentleman.  Paul showed up in his trademark coat and tie, as did we that one morning of the year.  He greeted everyone, introducing himself (Right! We had no idea who he was!)  His bearing and demeanor were almost military.  He even sat at attention, scanning through the stacks of wire copy saved for him, rapidly discarding the chaff before settling on the nuggets he would spin into pure gold:  The top stories of the day, to be sure, but a few others the rest of us might have ignored, and of course, the feature stories.  

Paul Harvey could work magic with the quirky little stories which were throwaways in the hands of most of us, but worthy embellishments to The Script.  Paul used one of our manual Royal typewriters, pecking away at a pretty good speed, one story per page of yellow copy paper.  His commercials were separate, literally "page 2" as he’d preface them, and all, written by Harvey.  Except for the ones consisting of mere bullet points which he ad libbed into high art of selling.  Once into script prep mode, he stayed pretty  focused, answering a question if asked, but most of us knew that you didn’t hassle Da Vinci while Mona was sitting there waiting to be painted.  Unlike so many on the radio, his voice was his real voice, but conversationally, he was rather low key, until 7:30AM Central Time, when The Transformation occurred.  

In studio, the engineer opened his microphone and out boomed, "HELLO AMERICANS!!  THIS IS PAUL HARVEY!!  STAND BY..FOR NEWS!!!"  And we stared, transfixed. CBS correspondent Charles Osgood, himself no mean wordsmith, has said of Paul Harvey, "he can say more in a pause than the rest of us can say in a paragraph."  Osgood also noted the essential quality of Harvey’s artistry:  "You can’t NOT listen to Paul Harvey."  It was true.  His hands reached through those radio speakers and grabbed you by the lapels.  He commanded you to listen.

Paul Harvey was many things.  First, he was part of the lonely first wave of postwar conservatism.  Along with Bill Buckley in print, Paul Harvey on the radio was a man firmly in touch with his basic values and not at all shy about enunciating them.  And when the   counterculture tried to make that seem so passe, Paul wasn’t about to roll over and play dead.  When one activist accused police of trying to "get the Black Panthers", Harvey shot back, "I should hope so".  Paul Harvey blended an objective take on most of his stories with pure commentary on others.  As he once told Marc Fisher of the Washington Post, "I can’t separate goodness and badness from any day’s news and make sense of it". Paul also seamlessly blended the news and commentary with his commercials.  Even minus the jingles and reverb chamber and machine gun pitchman’s delivery, Harvey commanded the top dollar in radio, $30,000per commercial, with just that voice.  Paul Harvey could have endorsed laminated dog droppings and caused a run on them, but, of course, he wouldn’t have.  Paul Harvey refused to do a commercial in which he didn’t believe.

Paul Harvey was not only one of the beginnings of postwar conservatism, he was also one of the last of the old radio commentators–people who commanded, in their day, the type of influence later held by Walter Cronkite, Oprah Winfrey, and Rush Limbaugh.  There will always become comparisons with Rush of course.  The conservative mantle was largely passed to Limbaugh in what had become harsher, more partisan times.

Even Harvey’s daily lunchtime appointment with Americans was pushed back to late morning, to accommodate Limbaugh’s 12noon Eastern Time start.  Paul Harvey was never made an honorary member of any Republican Congress’ freshman class.

Paul Harvey was also spokesman for The Heartland.  Not flyover country, but The Heartland.  Where the bedrock principles which made this country great could grow and be nurtured, recovering from the withering scorn which so often rolled in from the coasts.  In his interview with Marc Fisher, Paul Harvey said, "Our major media, being home-based on Manhattan Island, inevitably distort American reality.  I can stand on Times Square and know this is not America."  Indeed, New York city returned the compliment, being, for many years, one of the last places in the country where you couldn’t hear Paul Harvey. That was of little concern to the man who once proudly proclaimed that he was "a native born American who never left my country".  In one of the few discernible hypocrisies I’ve noted, the man who would one day pitch Wal-Mart, once lamented the passing of the mom and pop stores, adding, "some truths are inexorable.  Big fish eat little fish.” That Paul Harvey retained the common touch is remarkable, given that he’d made his way 9 years through a final 10 year, 100 million dollar contract with ABC.

In particular, Paul loved people in uniform: Soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines; firefighters and above all, police officers.  Paul barely knew his own father, a Tulsa cop who died in the line of duty when Paul Harvey Aurandt was only 3.  In later years he would note, "I’ve never known a policeman who was paid enough money for what we expect them to do." It was a teacher who noted Harvey’s remarkable voice and steered him in the direction of radio.  It was 1933 when the 15 year old got his first shot into a microphone at KVOO, Tulsa.  As Paul Harvey would note in his later years, "I was hearing people say, ‘that Paul Harvey–he’s pretty good for his age’."  And Paul would add, "I’m beginning to hear that again."

30 years after I first met Paul Harvey, I got to renew old acquaintances.  I became the announcer for the annual Radio Hall of Fame, and since it was based in Chicago, and since his wife, Angel, was its biggest donor, Paul always showed up.  He was unfailingly gracious, always saying kind things and sincerely inquiring about one’s family. And Paul Harvey was always genuinely amazed at the fact that so many people wanted to meet him. He should have realized how we craved someone like him.  Someone who didn’t look at us as hyphenated multicultural pieces of some jigsaw puzzle, but as Americans.  Hello Americans.  This was Paul Harvey. Good day.