In the pre-dawn hours of a frigid, windy winter morning 30 years ago – as I was hurrying from Chicago’s Union Station to North Michigan Avenue – a black limousine pulled up next to me and stopped. The driver rolled down his tinted window and told me: "Get in."
The passenger door opened, and one of the great voices in history boomed:
“You look pretty cold, my friend. Let me give you a ride.”
I nervously peered inside the limo, and saw Paul Harvey, the legendary broadcaster.
I hopped in the limo, shook Paul’s hand and rode with him about a mile through downtown Chicago. We both were due at work at 6 a.m. – Paul at his ABC studio offices, and I at the Associated Press bureau in the next-door building.
We had met a short time earlier when I wrote a rare profile on Harvey, who generally avoided press interviews, saying he was a newsman and not a celebrity.
He made an exception for my profile because Esquire Magazine published a long “hatchet job” on him. The Nov. 7, 1978 edition of Esquire summarized its story this way: “PAUL HARVEY – THE REST OF THE STORY, by William Brashler. This balding, blue-eyed, blustering broadcaster may be the richest newsman in the country bar none. But the cornflakes-and-corn-bread character Paul Harvey presents to listeners is largely false.”
Harvey had long been the target of some on the American left because he supported the Vietnam War and had sometimes sided with U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy in his search for communists inside the U.S. government and the entertainment industry. The magazine article claimed – among other charges – that Harvey had lied about his father dieing in the line of duty as a policeman. The article also claimed that Harvey had been dishonorably discharged from the U.S. military during World War II.
Harvey was the proud product of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the Tulsa World asked that the AP follow up with a story on the magazine’s allegations. I was assigned to the story.
Harvey generally refused press interviews, but he wanted to talk to the AP because the Esquire writer hadn’t bothered to ask him for any explanations. So, he agreed to talk to me – to tell me “the rest of the story.”
His employer, ABC, was nervous about press interviews, so they sent a public relations specialist to sit with Harvey and me during the interview, which took place at Harvey’s office.
I brought a tape recorder to the interview, and took only a few notes as Harvey talked to me for about an hour.
But when I got back to the AP bureau and turned on the tape recorder to play back the interview – disaster. There was nothing on the tape. The battery had died. A rare interview with a legend, and I had blown it!
Embarrassed, I called Harvey.
“Just as well,” he said. “I was angry that ABC sent a flack (PR person) to sit in on the interview. Let me come over to the AP bureau. I want to give you something.”
A short time later, Harvey walked into the Chicago AP bureau. Governors, senators, prime ministers and celebrities had walked into the AP bureau without any of the news staff paying a bit of notice.
But when Paul Harvey walked into the bureau, everyone stopped working and looked at the famous broadcast journalist. I had never seen the bureau so still.
I approached him, and apologized again for the tape recorder failing. He said, “It’s happened to me several times – don’t worry about it. In fact, I’m glad it happened, and let me tell you why.”
We went downstairs and got a cup of coffee. “I want to give you something.
It explains everything.” He handed me several typewritten pages. “This is the response I wrote to the Atlantic Monthly,” he said. “It answers the charges against me, one by one. I wrote it, but ABC won’t let me send it to the magazine. But I want you to have it. You can use it – just don’t tell ABC where you got it.”
The allegation that most angered Harvey was that his father hadn’t died in the line of duty as a policeman. The magazine article’s author said he had checked through the records of the Oklahoma Police Hall of Fame, which didn’t list Harvey’s father as killed in action. Harvey’s article said that his father was killed while on duty as a Tulsa police officer. (I double-checked, and Tulsa police records confirmed his story.) Harvey was almost equally angry at the magazine’s allegation that he had been given a 4-F discharge, which is given to men or women who have been found not qualified for service in the military because of physical, mental or moral standards. Harvey’s article – and documents he showed me – showed that he had enlisted in the Army Air force in 1943, but was discharged within a year because of an injury suffered during training.
The U.S. Army confirmed to me that Harvey’s account was accurate.
Harvey invited me, as part of writing the profile, to spend the day with him – without the PR guy being present.
I spent a full day with him the following week, beginning at 6 a.m., when he typically began his workday. His wife and producer, Lynne “Angel” Harvey joined us. He had no other staff. Harvey wrote all his news and commentary material. Angel helped cull through newspapers and wire stories.
Harvey explained his “Aunt Betty” philosophy of writing stories. “I think about Aunt Betty (it was really his sister-in-law in Missouri). If I think the story is too dull or complicated for Aunt Betty, I either re-write it or discard it.”
Harvey told me that he had refused all requests by ABC and others to get him to move to either New York or Washington. “I don’t want to be an insider,” he said. “I want to live in the heartland of America, look at events from the heartland and talk to Aunt Betty.” ABC couldn’t force him to move – his show was carried by more than 1,200 stations and had an audience that peaked at over 20 million listeners. The Gallup Poll listed him as the second most admired American in 1969.
I wrote the profile for the AP, which confirmed Harvey’s “rest of the story.”
After thousands of newspapers published my profile on Harvey, he wrote me a thank you note, and – on a bitterly cold pre-dawn Chicago morning – gave me a limousine ride to work. That’s a memory I’ll always cherish.