Why you should care
Because really good history can make you smarter about your future, and no one did a better job of telling you history’s tales than Paul Harvey.
Say “conservative radio” to most young people today and they’ll likely come up with a name like Sean Hannity or Glenn Beck. But those guys are the offspring of the industry’s grandfather — one who told stories more often than he raised his voice and who narrated history and the present to a generation of young listeners. His name was Paul Harvey — and his gentle storytelling program was the launching pad for an entire cast of well-known faces from today’s conservative movement, from Mitt Romney to Mike Huckabee to Fred Dalton Thompson.
To some people, he was a far-right conservative, a brother-in-arms of the John Birch Society, Billy Graham, William F. Buckley and other icons of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. But Paul Harvey was also a delightful history teacher — with a velvety voice that turned the news into narrative and entertainment each week on his famous segment The Rest of the Story.
For over three decades, from the 1970s to his death in 2009, Harvey would address his millions of listeners six days a week, giving them the backstory to people, things and events both famous and not so known. From the origin of Coca-Cola to an account of JFK’s assassination through his widow’s eyes, from his tales of Elvis Presley’s childhood to the Revolutionary War, the Oklahoma native had a magical fluidity to his storytelling. To hear him now is to feel at least a little nostalgic for that classic-radio mid-American accent — the kind that makes you think of political power in the 1940s and ’50s, from FDR to Truman.
Indeed, Harvey came out of that age of politics: He briefly served in World War II but was discharged (possibly for psychiatric reasons, an account he disputed). He made his way to Chicago, where he took up broadcasting on ABC — and he didn’t leave the airwaves for years. And he quickly made his name by explaining the “mysteries of history” and commenting, sometimes with extreme fervor, on the decline of American moralism. There is his classic, Jonathan Edwards-esque If I Were the Devil: How to Destroy America. And how many know that Harvey earned a permanent spot in the history textbooks when he coined the phrase Reaganomics?
Harvey’s voice, transitioning seamlessly from a story to commentary to a carefully placed ad, became a kind of brand kingmaker.
A longtime lover of history — a love cultivated by a single mother who raised him after his policeman father was killed — Harvey made waves early, getting his first radio gig at just age 14. And even though he would have plenty of mentors along the way, his work was most often honed by his wife — and producer — who was also a fervent student of history and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis.
But as I and any other editor, writer, reporter or media professional will tell you, it’s oftentimes not enough to have the right voice, stories and supporting team. What every storytelling program needs is an investor, and among Harvey’s truest gifts was his ability to keep sponsors. Much like the ubiquitous voice on NPR thanking the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Harvey’s voice, transitioning seamlessly from a story to commentary to a carefully placed advertisement, became a kind of brand kingmaker. People trusted what he was telling — and so they trusted what he was selling.
Harvey’s success in bringing back stories and history to life was a predecessor and arguably paved the way for many American documentary programs like Behind the Music, and his guest hosts in the 1990s and 2000s are faces we still see in conservative circles of power and politics. And on a personal note, Harvey in many ways foreshadowed OZY’s Flashback section. He was a master at connecting yesterday to the present and to tomorrow — he was an early proponent of drawing insight from the past in order to do better in the future.
When Harvey passed away in 2009, his show was taken over briefly by his son, followed by Gil Gross and then Mike Huckabee. But it didn’t last without him and ultimately gave way to a new generation of increasingly strident political and family-values radio.
For now, though, listen to Harvey, who’s speaking in the aftermath of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, as he discusses the “utter futility of words.” Coming from him, they were anything but.
This piece was originally published Feb. 4, 2014, and updated as of Nov. 4, 2014.