The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Monday, March 2, 2009

Page . . . Through

In later life, Paul Aurandt liked to say he that literally grew up in radio newsrooms. As with most things connected to him, this made for good copy but was more hyperbole with some basis in truth as opposed to literal fact.

In reality, Paul was the son of Harry Harrison Aurandt, a Pennsylvania man whose family had been Baptist ministers for five generations and Anna (nee Christensen) Aurandt, his Danish immigrant wife. Paul and older sister Frances were born and raised in Tulsa Oklahoma, where Harry Aurandt became a police officer. It was a typical childhood . . . for the first three years.

In 1921, Harry Aurandt was rabbit hunting with a friend, another police officer, when four armed robbers waylaid the two men. A gun battle ensued. Aurandt’s friend was shot below the knee in both legs, crippling him for life. Despite bullet wounds in his leg, lung, and liver, Aurandt managed to drive the other man and himself to a nearby farmhouse for help. He died from his injuries two days later.

Paul Aurandt’s own infancy coincided with that of radio. As a youth, the fatherless boy built homemade radio receivers in the family’s basement. At age fifteen, with encouragement from one of his high school teachers, he began working at a local radio station. He worked his way up to larger markets in Oklahoma City, Saint Louis, and then Chicago before ultimately going national.

In 1940, Aurandt traveled to the then-highly exotic location of Hawaii to cover the U.S. Navy and the concentration of its Pacific Fleet. Recalled to the mainland from this assignment, Aurandt was on a ship two days out of Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked.

In 1943, Aurandt enlisted in the Army but received a discharge a mere three months later. Rumors circulated it was a psychiatric discharge for deliberately wounding himself in the heel.

Aurandt told two different stories of the incident. In one, he signed up under the impression he was joining the Air Corps but ended up placed in the Infantry instead. After an argument with his superior about it, he was “thrown out.” In another version, Aurandt insisted he received an honorable medical discharge over “a little training accident . . . a minor cut on the obstacle course” but also conceded, “I cannot tell you the exact wording on my discharge.”

In 1951, looking to make a big name for himself, he became obsessed with what he regarded as negligent security at the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, where nuclear research was taking place. Authorities caught him attempting to scale a wall of the facility at midnight. A grand jury investigated but then threw out the case when naval officials swore Aurandt had told them in advance of his intentions.

In the 1950s, Aurandt told his ever-growing listening audience that he hated Senator Joseph McCarthy but professed himself a fan of the basic goals of McCarthyism. He published a column entitled “Eisenhower Wins” two weeks before the election to demonstrate his journalistic courage and foresight. However, he largely cancelled out any points he won on that episode by his certain prediction that Elvis Presley’s popularity was a fad and would not last a year.

In the 1960s, he see-sawed over the Vietnam War, staunchly defending the U.S. military presence there but sometimes fretting over our government’s aims and finally reversing himself when President Nixon widened the war. George Wallace’s 1968 Presidential campaign seriously considered him for its V.P. slot.

Aurandt once proclaimed, “The news media overthrew the United States government.” The subject here was not the election of Barack Obama, however. It was the 1970s and the target of his ire the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s subsequent resignation.

Long known for his conservative bent, Aurandt remained popular with many for his mainstream, common sense folksiness. This commentary from 2005, ruminating over a feared loss of U.S. greatness, makes it clear that as conservatism moved ever right over the decades, Aurandt moved right with it.

We sent men with rifles into Afghanistan and Iraq and we kept our best weapons in their silos. Even now, we're standing there dying, daring to do nothing decisive because we've declared ourselves better than our terrorist enemies, more moral, more civilized. Our image is at stake, we insist.

But we didn't come this far because we are made of sugar candy. Once upon a time, we elbowed our way onto and into this continent by giving smallpox-infected blankets to Native Americans. Yes, that was biological warfare. And we used every other weapon we could get our hands on, to grab this land from whomever, and we grew prosperous. And yes, we greased the skids with the sweat of slaves.

And so it goes with most great nation-states, which feeling guilty about their savage pasts, eventually civilize themselves out of business, and wind up invaded and ultimately dominated by the lean, hungry, up-and-coming who are not made of sugar candy.

Comments like these singled him out for a Presidential Medal of Freedom later that same year from George W. Bush.

To his credit, Aurandt never claimed to be a reporter. He saw himself as a journalistic personality, freely mixing facts with his own ideas and opinions. In this sense, he was a forerunner for contemporary radio personalities divergent as Rush Limbaugh to Don Imus.

One might consider that a questionable legacy all on its own. However, many have questioned the “factual” side of Aurandt’s programs, which he always stridently defended. He stands accused of reporting quotes and details out of context or even cherry-picking stories to make them better fit his interpretations and worldview.

Aurandt himself once said, “I don't think of myself as a profound journalist. I think of myself as a professional parade watcher who can't wait to get out of bed every morning and rush down to the teletypes and pan for gold.”

Jan Brunvand, a writer and expert on urban legends, carefully scoured a 1991 book of some of Aurandt’s favorite/most famous stories and anecdotes. He found at least nine known and debunked myths reported not only as true but also authenticated.

Whatever else his critics may say about Aurandt, he created a distinctive on-air persona that was all his own . . . except it wasn’t.

Multiple students of journalism history have noted distinct similarities between Aurandt’s on-air style and that of sportscaster Bill Stern, host of the popular Colgate Sports Reel, including a clipped staccato delivery with mid-sentence dramatic pauses. Stern introduced the later segments in his show as “Reel Two” and “Reel Three,” similar to Aurandt’s use of “Page Two” and “Page Three.” Stern even invented a segment he called “The Rest of the Story” that Aurdant made his own trademark.

I have spoken of Paul Aurdant in the past tense because he died this weekend in Phoenix Arizona, surrounded by family and friends, at the age of ninety from undisclosed causes. On the air, Paul always identified himself by his middle name, which was Harvey. This was my attempt at telling you a little bit of the rest of his story.

Aurdant did not use his family surname because his mother disapproved of radio as a career and wanted her son to be a doctor. Or it was because his father’s semi-martyrdom remained known in Tulsa and young Paul was determined to succeed on his own. Or maybe he was ashamed of his Danish mother and was determined to present himself as an all-American boy.

Which one of these reasons is the truth? Are any of them? Does it matter? They are all great stories. As the man who first used populist horse sense to blur the lines between reporting and commentary, Paul Harvey might never admit it but he could only agree the truth should never get in the way of a great story.

Page . . . through!

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