WASHINGTON — For the better part of six decades, Paul Harvey spun tales on the radio in his staccato baritone, entertaining up to 24 million listeners a day with folksy vignettes ending in unexpected twists.
And now, the rest of the story.
Previously confidential files show that Harvey, who died in February at 90, enjoyed a 20-year friendship with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, often submitting advance copies of his radio script for comment and approval. Harvey wrote Hoover and his deputies regularly. Hoover, in turn, helped Harvey with research, suggested changes in scripts and showered the broadcaster with effusive praise.
But the real twist, suitable for one of Harvey's signature "Rest of the Story" vignettes, is how they met — on opposite sides of an espionage investigation.
The news is contained in nearly 1,400 pages of FBI files, released to the Washington Post in response to a 1-year-old Freedom of Information Act request. The trove supplies new details about how America's No. 1 broadcaster came to befriend America's No. 1 G-man.
The records underscore that the men shared deeply conservative convictions and a hatred of communism. And Harvey's vast audience was of intense interest to the image-obsessed Hoover.
Harvey tried to be of service beyond the FBI as well, writing in 1956 to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who was then making a name for himself by hunting down alleged Communists in the federal bureaucracy, with tips about "known Reds" at a Texas Air Force base. A senior FBI official jotted a notation to ensure that Harvey's letter not be distributed outside the bureau's top brass: "No dissemination since identity of Harvey cannot be revealed."
The Cold War beginning of the Harvey-Hoover bond was an incident from 1951, when Harvey was 32. Harvey had already made a name for himself as a radio and TV commentator in Chicago, specializing in human-interest stories and strong opinions delivered in shirtsleeve English. He routinely hammered officials for being lax on security, in particular those in charge of the Argonne National Laboratory, which did nuclear testing 20 miles west of Chicago.
After wrapping up his television broadcast on the evening of Feb. 5, 1951, Harvey set out to prove his case — and make some career-enhancing headlines for himself.
Harvey guided his black Cadillac Fleetwood toward Argonne, arriving after midnight. He parked in a secluded spot, tossed his overcoat onto the barbed wire fence, then scampered over.
Breaking the law in an act of participatory journalism, Harvey planned to scratch his signature on "objects that could not possibly have been brought to the site by someone else," according to a statement later given by an off-duty guard who accompanied him. The signature would stand as proof that Harvey had easily defeated the lab's security.
But seconds after Harvey hit the ground, security officers spotted him, documents show. Harvey ran until, caught in a Jeep's headlights, he tripped and fell. As guards approached, Harvey sprang to his feet and waved.
Guards asked whether Harvey realized he was in a restricted area. "Harvey replied no, that he thought he might be at the airport because of the red lights," one report says. Harvey told the authorities he had been headed to a neighboring town to give a speech when his car died.
Under questioning, Harvey eventually dropped his cover story but refused to elaborate, saying he wanted to tell his tale before a congressional committee.
Guards searched his Cadillac and found a nickel-plated .380-caliber Colt automatic. It belonged to a Naval Intelligence officer whom Harvey had brought along as a witness.
The search also revealed a four-page, typewritten script for a forthcoming broadcast. Harvey, it turned out, had planned from the outset to feed the nation a bogus account of his escapade: "I hereby affirm the following is a true and accurate account," the script began. "My friend and I were driving a once-familiar road, when the car stalled. … We started to walk. … We made no effort to conceal our presence. …
"Suddenly I realized where I was. That I had entered, unchallenged, one of the United States' vital atomic research installations. … Quite by accident, understand, I had found myself inside the 'hot' area. … We could have carried a bomb in, or classified documents out."
Word of the stunt soon made headlines. The U.S. attorney for Illinois empaneled a grand jury to consider an espionage indictment. The Atomic Energy Commission suggested privately that Harvey might avoid prosecution if he praised the commission's professionalism on the air, reports show. A member of Congress worked to kill the investigation, and Harvey went on the air to suggest he was being set up.
An FBI official noted in one memo that "this looks like a publicity stunt and I don't think we should carry the ball if we can avoid it." Agents conducted interviews, kept tabs on developments and sent updates to Hoover and his deputies in Washington. But the bureau avoided taking sides, apparently waiting to see whom public opinion would favor.
Two months after the incident, a federal grand jury officially declined to indict Harvey.
Nothing in Harvey's file suggests Hoover did anything to help. But Harvey appears to have been grateful for something.
In April 1952, Rep. Fred Busbey, an Illinois Republican and longtime friend of Harvey's, asked the FBI if he could bring the broadcaster by to thank Hoover. "You will recall that Harvey has a history of mental instability," said an FBI memo analyzing the request, adding that Harvey appeared to be rehabilitated and was now "very effectively anti-Communist."
Records of the Saturday morning meeting show Harvey acknowledged he had acted foolishly. Harvey told those present that he had always considered Hoover a great American but that, seen in person, the director far exceeded his expectations.
And so began a friendship that continued until Hoover's death in 1972. In the years that followed, Hoover autographed a photo for Harvey, who in turn devoted entire shows to Hoover's heroism and mailed Hoover copies of his commercial recordings.
Neither man was restrained in his praise of the other. "You were never in better form," Hoover gushed to Harvey about one of his broadcasts in May 1958, and again, in precisely the same words, in February 1959.
Harvey wrote to Hoover in January 1957, saying, "From some future pinnacle, if the Republic has survived, history will record that it was largely due to your vigilance."
A 1957 letter to Harvey from FBI assistant director Louis Nichols notes, "For a number of years, you have been kind enough to send me your daily copy."
"All of us in the FBI," Hoover wrote in one note, "count it as a great honor to have you as one of our closest friends."
When Clarence Kelly took over as director in 1973, Harvey's love affair with the bureau continued without pause. Harvey mailed Kelly a swatch of cloth in 1974 and asked him to sign it so it could be sewn into a quilt for his wife, Angel, that would bear the signatures of all the people she most admired.