In the four and a half hours of ceaseless spectacle that was Super Bowl XLVII — even the Roman numerals are excessive — there were only two minutes that made you stop and truly listen.
They were courtesy of Paul Harvey, the late, great radio broadcaster. Chrysler had the inspired idea to make two minutes of his speech at a 1978 Future Farmers of America convention into the soundtrack for an ad for the Ram truck while affecting still photos of American farm life scrolled on the screen. The spot stuck out for how thoroughly un–Super Bowl it was. It’s a wonder that CBS didn’t refuse to air it on grounds that it wasn’t appropriate for the occasion. It was simple. It was quiet. It was thoughtful. It was eloquent. It was everything that our celebrity-soaked pop culture, which dominates Super Bowl Sunday almost as much as football does, is not. All the fantastic glitz and sometimes hilarious vulgarity that define the events around the Super Bowl — the halftime shows and the ads — can’t make up for a desperate poverty of expression. No one has anything to say and, in any case, wouldn’t know how to say it. Not Paul Harvey. His speech is a little gem of literary craftsmanship. It shows that words still retain the power to move us, even in a relentlessly visual age driven from distraction to distraction. Harvey picks up the story of creation: “And on the eighth day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, ‘I need a caretaker’ — so God made a farmer.” It goes on to describe characteristics of the dutiful farmer, punctuating each riff with the same kicker: “God said, ‘I need somebody willing to get up before dawn, milk the cows, work all day in the field, milk cows again, eat supper, then go to town and stay past midnight at a meeting of the school board’ — so God made a farmer.” In its pacing and its imagery, the speech is a kind of prose-poem. Delivered by Harvey, who could make a pitch for laundry detergent sound like a passage from the King James Bible, it packs great rhetorical force. Listening to it can make someone who never would want to touch cows, especially before dawn, wonder why he didn’t have the good fortune to have to milk them twice a day. In short, it is a memorably compelling performance, and without bells or whistles, let alone staging so elaborate it might challenge the logisticians who pulled off the invasion of Normandy. That was left for Beyoncé. Someday a cultural historian will write the definitive history of the Super Bowl halftime and how it morphed from a showcase for the likes of the Grambling State University marching band to a platform for gyrating pop stars. (Michael Jackson started the trend in 1993.) Beyoncé dressed like she was headed for a shift at the local gentlemen’s club, and put on a show that was an all-out assault on the senses. She was stunning and athletic, as well as tasteless and unedifying. The Harvey ad was schmaltzy rustic romanticism, to be sure, but it celebrated something worthy. It was uplifting rather than degrading. It spoke of selflessness and virtue in moving terms. The farmer is patient. He is willing “to sit up all night with a newborn colt, and watch it die, then dry his eyes and say, ‘Maybe next year.’” He is ingenious. He can “shoe a horse with a hunk of car tire.” He is hard-working. He “will finish his 40-hour week by Tuesday noon and then, paining from ‘tractor back,’ will put in another 72 hours.” He is a family man. He bales “a family together with the soft, strong bonds of sharing.” Harvey’s speech has such resonance because what he describes aren’t agrarian qualities so much as stereotypically American qualities. They represent what we want ourselves to be like — even if God didn’t make us farmers.