While in New York last week, I was able to score (thanks to Mollie Leiser) a visit with our company’s beloved founder, Harold Burson. Mollie and I found Harold in his famous corner office visiting with two fellows (former Burson folks) who had stopped by just for a visit. This says a lot about Harold – the fact that former employees feel comfortable enough to stop in and grab a few minutes with the man often called “the father of modern PR.”
Like most of us, I had met Harold during many of his office visits but never 1-on-1. He was quite gracious with his time, considering how busy he must be.
Surrounded by photographs of Harold with various presidents and dignitaries, I felt compelled to get his thoughts on the upcoming election. We discussed the candidates (he knows McCain) from an image-perspective agreeing that McCain’s choice for VP was a risky one and could take the campaign in either direction. I asked him which President he was closest with – Ronald Reagan – and if he keeps in touch with his widow, Nancy. (Turns out, he’s not a fan.)
Since I had already confessed my favorite President of all time (Teddy Roosevelt, born around the block from the B-M office), I asked Harold to name his. He seemed to relish the question: “Oh, that’s easy! Abe Lincoln.”
But Harold really came to life when I mentioned the connection we shared through two men. One of his dearest friends was the legendary newsman, Howard K. Smith, known as one of ‘Murrow’s Boys.’ Harold had met him when he was covering the Nuremberg Trials for the Army Radio Network in 1945.
Howard was the father of one of my dear friends, Jack Smith, also a established newsman and a former colleague here at Burson. We traded anecdotes about both men – their good humor, news savvy and intense drive to get the story. We agreed that we missed both Smith men – especially these days.
I described to Harold how Jack would tell us ‘kids’ about the evening that changed politics forever. Television was a fairly new medium and his father was appointed mediator between Kennedy and Nixon – the first presidential debate to be televised EVER.
When his father came home and hung up his hat, he’d said to Jack and his mother, “Well, Nixon obviously has that one in the bag.” Jack, his mother, and the rest of the nation saw things differently – that a young, handsome Kennedy had clearly beaten the nervous, sweaty Nixon. Image and presentation now played a big role in public perception – it wasn’t just about words anymore. The advent of television changed things as radically then as the Internet has done in recent times.
Naturally, I had to ask Harold about the Internet and what he thought of social media. He equated it with the invention of the printing press, as just another form of mass communication. What he really wanted to know was, how do browsers make money? (I fumbled an answer but really, I’m not clear on it myself.)
To put things in perspective here, note that Harold was born in 1921 – one of the most pivotal decades in our nation’s history. During that time, American life embraced three key inventions: radio, airplanes and the automobile. (However, booze was illegal – YIKES.) This is the long-view perspective that Harold is coming from. Let’s face it, the man has seen a lot of ‘new revolutions’ in his 87 years and the Internet is just the latest.
Which brings me to my next observation about Harold Burson. He is SHARP. As. A. Tack. Seriously, the details he can recall from half a century ago are endless – the names, the places and the stories! Mollie and i were so impressed and agreed Harold is a great role model – not just PR people but human beings in general. I’d observed: “I’ll be happy if I can feed myself at that age, let alone coming to work every day and still being so dang relevant. Hmmm, I need to start taking vitamins.”
To drive that point home, Harold got up to shuffle through papers on his desk. He was determined to share a BusinessWeek article that had just been published. It was called, “Seniors Who Still Rock Business” and it features 50 top senior business leaders inclusing our hero, Harold, right in there with Rupert Murdoch and Warren Buffett. Harold was immensely pleased with it – proud of his own longevity and his steadfast ability to “rock”, as it were. As the daughter of a woman who refuses to retire (“But what am I going to do all day?”) I could see why he was jazzed.
Asking about a beautiful b/w photograph on his wall (of William Faulkner and his horse), I discovered he had once interviewed Faulkner, one of my favorite Southern writers. Well, I’ll tell ya, I nearly lost my professional composure right then and there. Thankfully, I had just barely enough control NOT to exclaim, “Holy shit, are you kidding me????” (Whew. That was close. )
I pressed Harold for more details so he got up and pulled Faulkner’s biography from a shelf and opened a dog-eared page that included parts of Harold’s interview. Mind you, he was 18 at the time, working as a stringer for The Commercial Appeal and it was the first interview the great writer had given in several years. I asked Harold his impression of the man: “Faulkner? He was an odd duck.” Ah! Suspicions confirmed.
Before it was time to go, I asked Harold for a photo of him holding his Newspaper Guild Card (I knew he still carried it in his wallet). Naturally, he gave me more. “Let’s go to my ‘Wall of Narcissism’ and do it there,” he cheerfully offered. Standing in front of a wall of awards, write-ups and general acknowledgements of a life well-lived, I took my shot. It was a great honor to visit with the man whose name I’ve been uttering for the past eight years; it’s comforting to know such a warm, intelligent person is behind that name.
My overall impression is that Harold Burson is a man who attained the highest level of success – happiness – with much hard work and a ton of chutzpah. Despite all that he has seen and done, no one seems more surprised and delighted by his accomplishments than the man himself; it’s almost as if he cannot quite believe it. I recall a quote from his biography that sums it up:
“Almost sixty years since I decided to start a public relations business, I have wondered retrospectively about my audacity, even recklessness, in presuming I had the competence and experience for such an enterprise.”
Just goes to show ya – all you need is gumption and brains to be a success. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to be a charming Southern gentleman.
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