Al Neuharth, USA Today Founder: Rest in peace
Ryan Summerlin April 30, 2013
The recent death of USA Today founder, Al Neuharth, brings to mind memories of my early days as a paperboy, newspaper editor, and nationally-syndicated columnist. In early1987, a frantic USA Today reporter called, saying he needed some Nebraska political facts. ASAP! After a bit of digging, I called him back.
Over the next month, this scenario repeated several times, which caused the grateful reporter to ask how he could repay the many castings of my political bread onto his troubled reportorial waters. “Maybe you could mention me favorably to someone at USA Today?” I asked.
Soon, I was in touch with the razor-sharp mind of Sid Hurlburt who, over the next 20 years, put me to work writing op-ed pieces and debating many much better-known figures in the fields of foreign and military affairs and domestic politics. With each new writing assignment, I always recalled this Scripture: “Ecclesiastes 11:1 (KJV) “Cast thy bread upon the waters; for thou shalt find it after many days.” Days? How about over 20 years.
Almost every time my byline appeared in USA Today, radio stations from across America would call seeking an on-air interview. I did dozens of programs until one day I agreed, in my fly-over-land naïveté, to go on air with Howard Stern. He turned out to be such an on-air jerk that I hung up the phone, leaving him with dead air time. Conversely, I had a great radio experience when Hal Lion of Lion Recording Services asked me to record “Central View” each week for rebroadcast across his national radio syndicate.
In early April, 1990, then Soviet President Gorbachev summoned the world’s press to Moscow to sample Glasnost. Al Neuharth, then head of the vast Gannett newspaper empire, was the keynote speaker. That’s how we met. As Americans often do when stuck for days in a foreign land, Al and I talked often and at length. Al praised my work for USA Today. I did an “aw shucks,” and praised Sid Hurlburt. We shared the newspaper-boy experiences we had in common. South Dakota-raised, Al told me that he was constantly reminding his Washington staff that writers living west of the Potomac and Hudson should receive more attention. I’m thinking: Thank you, Oklahoma.
When Al took the stage to address Gorbachev’s entire cabinet and Mrs. Raisa Gorbachev — all seated in the front row — I took a seat directly behind Soviet Labor Minister Gennady Yanayev. (Nine months earlier, Wonder Wife and I interviewed Yanayev in his Moscow office. He was drunk then, and drunk while Al was speaking.)
Then, just 16 months after Al’s speech, Yanayev tried to lead a coup versus President Gorbachev. On Soviet TV, as Yanayev claimed he was the new Soviet president, his hands were shaking badly. Wonder Wife and I knew why. In moments, Sid Hurlburt was on the phone offering space for an above-the-fold article about Yanayev and his prospects for success.
We said Yanayev could not lead a two-car parade and that the coup would fail within days. The next day, USA Today scooped our competitors, most of which were predicting the demise of Gorbachev. At such a wonderful time, I had to remind myself that such a great moment only came about because, years before, I had “cast my bread upon the waters.”
Nationally syndicated columnist, William Hamilton, was educated at the University of Oklahoma, the George Washington University, the U.S Naval War College, the University of Nebraska, and Harvard University.