By Mary Kate Cary, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
I remember seeing Paul Harvey at the dedication of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, in Washington, D.C., when I was a staffer at the Department of Justice in 1992. Paul Harvey's father, a Tulsa, Oklahoma police officer, was killed in the line of duty when Paul was only three years old, and as a result, the famous broadcaster had been a generous supporter of the memorial. (In fact, here's a nice tribute to him this morning on the Law Enforcement Officers Memorial website, complete with the story of the "desperados" who ambushed his father.) Traveling across town with the attorney general, we were all excited to actually see what Paul Harvey looked like—to see the face behind "Stand By! For News!"—and agreed afterward that the "Voice of the Heartland" sounded a lot bigger than he looked in person. He was not a big man, but he had a larger-than-life ability to captivate audiences, inspire trust and tell "the rest of the story."
The obituary in the Washington Post mentions the fact that Paul Harvey agreed to a ten-year, $100 million contract with ABC Radio at the age of 82—which means he still had two more years to go on the contract at the time of his death at age 90. It reminds me of my husband's grandfather, who signed a three-year auto lease at the age of 97. (It was a good decision—Grandpa lived to age 100). Talk about optimism! Paul Harvey commanded millions in both advertising revenue and employment contracts, with a mammoth listening audience of 22 million people a day. A 1985 survey found that the four most popular radio programs on the air were all Paul Harvey broadcasts in different time slots. He and Walter Cronkite tied for second place in the 1969 Gallup Poll for the Most Admired Man in America.
But why was Paul Harvey so beloved by the American people? The answer is buried at the end of his obituary:
For his newscast, Mr. Harvey relied on what he called his "Aunt Betty" test. Betty was his sister-in-law, an "old-fashioned housewife" who lived in Missouri. If he decided that a story was too complicated or dull for Betty, he either rewrote or discarded it.
He wrote his own copy and insisted that he would not endorse a product that he did not believe in.
Most speechwriters have their own version of the Aunt Betty test, as do advertising executives, courtroom lawyers and national politicians (remember House Minority Leader Bob Michel's rule: "Will it play in Peoria"?)
But wouldn't it be great if hedge fund managers abided by the Aunt Betty test? How about officials at the Treasury Department? CEOs of the big banks? It would be great if business leaders wrote their own copy, spoke in understandable terms, and only endorsed products they believed in. I would love to hear—as would many Americans, I suspect—an explanation of toxic assets, asset-backed securities, subprime lending, derivatives, and the various bailouts in terms that Aunt Betty can understand.
I miss Paul Harvey already.
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