Dear Ask Doug,
My grandparents are always gushing about some dude on the radio® named “Paul Harvey,” as if I should know who that is. Well, I don’t, and I never have. And when I tell them so they just make little huffing noises through their noses and turn to stare derisively into the middle-distance®.
They’ve also threatened to write me out of their will because of my so-called historical paucities of the first order® and also for something they refer to as generational insolence of the third order®. I don’t get it. Sometimes I wonder if my family is just weird. Anyway, can you tell me Who was this Paul Harvey?, and what was his enduring contribution to Western Civilization®? Also, do you know if it’s possible to sue your own grandparents, and win, without them ever finding out?
—Accused of Insolence in Ipswich
First, I question whether you fully grasp the purposes of a registered trademark symbol. Just a hunch, but I’d hazard the term “Western Civilization” has been used in print before. Also, as a general note, I no longer offer specific legal advice as relates to family squabbles, revokable trusts (or mistrusts), lines of dynastic succession, perpetual right to live in a parent’s basement, etc., so I’m just going to politely ignore those rather too personal aspects of your communication and turn my attention instead to your primary line of inquiry.
Inheritance and copyright laws notwithstanding, I was delighted to receive your question regarding Paul Harvey, as that’s pretty much the subject I had already decided to devote this column to anyway. Perhaps the following knowledge, once mastered, will allow you to finally impress and patch things over with your grandsire and grandame. Please try to pay attention. This is likely going to require a rather long and elaborate explanation, perhaps even split into two parts, with each being more impressive than the last! Let’s begin.
Who Was This Paul Harvey and Why Should You Care?
Beloved radio personality Paul Harvey was a man gifted with a unique voice that, even according to the begrudging praise of his rivals, could “flow over a hot razor like melted butter.” Love him or hate him, listeners always knew who was talking. It was Paul. Paul Harvey. The man who wouldn’t shut up. And people loved him for that.
For a period of 68 consecutive years, there was never a moment when Paul Harvey’s distinctive croon was not bouncing somewhere round the ionosphere, owing to the proliferation of his many programs aired on more than 60,002 stations1. At the height of his career, Harvey was hosting four-hundred-sixty-four daily, syndicated, radio programs and employing an army of seventeen-thousand-fourteen2 researchers, mic technicians, and tongue-harpies (a kind of physical therapist who specializes in loosening the muscles of the lips, mouth and throat; also known as an “LMT Man3,” a “speed bagger4,” a “tonsil donkey,” or a “palette jockey”). Harvey’s staff actually represented a greater population at the time than that of the mysterious territories that were soon to become Wyoming, if you didn’t count the Native Americans5.
Though all of his radio shows were popular, Paul Harvey’s most successful program was the short, human-interest feature named “The Rest Of The Story” in which the “un-peered potentate of the wireless domain6” would relate some little-known bit of history from a clever angle, giving the story an anecdotal twist at the very end of the telling so that listeners would experience that pleasurable aha! moment of connecting the dots to a larger story: “Ah, so that little orphaned chimney sweep with the oddly prehensile toes rose to become the lion of Britain, Winston Churchill,” or “Oh, so the chemical mixture that frustrated housewife threw together in her kitchen sink became the local anesthetic we now know as lidocaine,” or “Well I’ll be blinkered, Jummy! I never knew that old tom on The Little Rascals was actually a dog in a zippered cat suit!”
Listeners loved the program, even forming “Harvey Parlor Clubs” to enjoy the program in the company of fellow Pauly-Philes®, typically while nibbling a bylaw-mandated spread of mashed brazil nuts, curly creamed pork tails, and Flattened Toledo Tea Cakes7, and consuming gallons of the fermented oatmeal drippings popularly referred to as “Van Winkle’s Delight.” These practices now sound like the quaint effervescence (or radioactive decay?) of a more innocent time, but we shouldn’t forget that a generation raised on the program spent their childhoods acting out Harvey’s colorful anecdotes, and slapping one another in the face before shouting “Now you know the rest of the story, Jack!”
In fact, the generation that came of age between the turbulence of the idealistic but ill-advised, 1952 “Cub Scout Coup8” and the hopeful advent of the two-fisted-sippy-cup9 in 1974 were generally so shaped by the broadcasts they came to be collectively referred to by sociologists as “The Harvey Quints,” though, of course, there were in actuality more than five of them10.
After forty-two years of continuous “The Rest of the Story” broadcasts however, the constant acquisition of new material became an ongoing problem for Harvey’s research team. There simply wasn’t enough history that had happened yet at that time11 to continue to sustain entirely new episodes of the show.
Unbeknownst to Harvey, his staff began at that time to cleverly alloy fictitious elements with stories that were mostly true, finding that this little trick would afford them opportunity to repurpose episodes Harvey (whose memory spanned no more than ten years12) had broadcast decades earlier. The war13 was on at the time, and with so much attention diverted elsewhere, the “unsustainable ruse bound to eventually break the heart of the whole world®” actually succeeded for several “happy, golden, deluded years®.”
And on that relatively pleasant note I feel we should hit pause, affording you a week or two to digest the happier half of this sad recounting, before we don our metaphorical14 mud-boots and wade into the fetid, sloshy murk ever stagnating within the seedy underbelly of broadcast history® to explore the inevitable downfall of that seemingly innocent and gilded age and of her most noble figurehead, Mr. Harvey and of the small, Spanish goat he was never seen without15. It is not a pretty tale, but perhaps it is at least one from which you might glean the fruit of some very heavy-handed moralizing. Honestly, I still can’t believe you’re thinking of suing your own grandparents. I’m trying to tell this story, but almost the whole time, that’s all I’ve been thinking about.
End, Part the First