I don’t know about the rest of the nation, but here in Central time we could get Paul Harvey’s News and Comment in the morning and again at noon, most likely on some crackly AM country music station. If I were out of town or on the road, I would surf the AM dial hoping to find a hint of that unmistakable voice: The Voice. Like a true news junkie, I needed my Paul Harvey fix.
Paul Harvey, born Paul Harvey Aurandt in Tulsa on Sept. 4, 1918, had a voice like a cannon at Gettysburg, like Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill or General Anthony Clement McAuliffe answering the German surrender ultimatum with the expletive “Nuts!” His distinctive baritone was soothing and comforting, the optimistic, can-do voice of Middle America, the voice of hope decades before Barack Obama knew the meaning of the word.
Listening to Paul Harvey, who died Saturday at age 90, was like eavesdropping on radio in its golden age, which wasn’t just radio’s golden age, of course, but America’s. Like many of his listeners, Paul Harvey did it all: wrote his own copy, read his own commercials, even invented his own vocabulary (Reaganomics, skyjacker, guesstimate, to name a few of his neologisms). When it came to selecting news copy Paul Harvey applied what he called his “Aunt Betty” test. Aunt Betty was an old fashioned Missouri housewife (his sister-in-law, actually), and no story too complicated or dull for Aunt Betty made it onto the newscast.
A Paul Harvey newscast was in startling contrast to the network or public radio news. From the opening salvo of “Hello Americans! Paul Harvey…Stand by for News!” — the absence of any theme music or bells and whistles let you know you were in for 15 minutes of honest, man-to-man talk. Paul Harvey gave it to you straight, but without the doom and gloom that hung over other conventional newscasts. In the midst of recession, national tragedy, or malaise, Paul Harvey showed you the silver lining amid the dark clouds and raised America’s collective spirit — not like a preacher (though he was descended from five generations of Baptist preachers), but as America’s most trusted news source.
What a contrast to the negative nabobs of negativism further down the dial. If you had to pin down Paul Harvey, he probably leaned more to the right of center than to the left, but only because he believed in core conservative values like self-reliance, religious faith, the free market, and the industry and ingenuity of the American people. But while Paul Harvey loved to preface stories with “There is good news today…” Paul Harvey News and Comment was not a vacuous “Good News” newscast. There was a fine line between locating the good in the news and being willfully naïve. With an audience of 22 million dedicated listeners, Paul Harvey was anything but naïve.
IN THE TWENTY or so years I listened to Paul Harvey I do not ever recall hearing him say a negative word about any celebrity or government official — which was one reason you came away from a Paul Harvey broadcast feeling better about yourself and your country. And perhaps a hankering to run out and buy a new vacuum cleaner. Certainly being one of the most trusted and respected journalists of your day helps when you are trying to peddle your sponsors’ wares.
As popular as his newscasts were, equally beloved was a segment called “The Rest of the Story.” I remember crawling in from college football practice at 5:30 p.m. — this was the early 1980s — and collapsing on a locker room bench while over the loudspeaker came The Voice halfway through his evening broadcast, which wasn’t news at all, but a feature story where some famous person’s identity was revealed in a surprise, twist ending. It might be the story how one man single-handedly brought Philadelphia back from the dead following the Great Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 (George Washington), or the misanthrope who wished to drown the human race (Mark Twain).
Talk about a surreal scene: fifty exhausted college football players from all across the country lying all over a locker room floor in silence waiting for Paul Harvey to reveal the identity of today’s subject. “And now you know…the rest of the story…Paul Harvey…Good Day!” Only then would we hit the showers.
His few Eastern establishment critics — and I do mean few — would probably have called Paul Harvey a second-rate newsman, an anti-intellectual populist, and a snakeskin salesman who peddled not only vacuum cleaners, but false hope and optimism while ignoring the real challenges America faced. But it doesn’t matter what they say, because they only talk to themselves.
The Voice spoke to all of us.