Not the same old song and dance: The wit and wisdom of Peter Harvey Spencer,

Review by Ed Quillen

Journalism – September 2004 – Colorado Central Magazine

Not the Same Old Song and Dance: The Wit and Wisdom of Peter Harvey Spencer
Compiled and edited by Paul M. O’Rourke
Published in 2004 by Western Reflections
ISBN 1-9372739-03-7

THE PROBLEM with putting journalistic commentary into a book is one I know well, from assembling a collection of my own columns in 1998 for Deep in the Heart of the Rockies.

There’s a contradiction in the process. Journalism is topical and concerns issues that people are talking about when they get the paper in a given town. Books are part of a bigger environment; they’re not designed for people in a certain place at a certain time.

To put this another way, the better a column or editorial is when it appears — the more relevant and timely and incisive — the more likely that it will not fit well into a book that comes out years later. Further, editorials and columns are composed as individual pieces, to be read one at a time with a few days or a week until the next one; they’re not designed to be read all at once. That’s the nature of this beast, but with that caveat in mind, this collection from a small town on the west edge of the San Juans makes for some fairly good reading.

Paul Harvey Spencer, an East Coast refugee, moved to Telluride about 25 years ago, and served as the town’s mayor. Like many people, he got priced out of the ski resort; he moved about 40 miles to Norwood, also in San Miguel County. Instead of commuting to the county seat, in 1994 he resurrected the Norwood Post, which had published from 1912 to 1938. After he got it up and running, he sold it to new owners who didn’t treat it well, although it is back in business as a small-town weekly.

Spencer died in 1999 — this book doesn’t say where or how — and Not the Same Old Song and Dance is something of a tribute, compiled and edited by his friend and colleague, Paul M. O’Rourke. It’s a collection of Spencer’s columns and editorials, arranged by topic, with short essays by people who knew and admired him at the beginning of each chapter.

What’s the difference between a column and an editorial? Both are expressions of opinions. But columns are more informal and speak only for the author, so they usually feature a mere “I,” whereas editorials speak for the newspaper as an institution and generally use the “editorial we.” These are mingled throughout the book, and sometimes the shift from “I” to “we” and back is jarring.

With that in mind, along with the transitory nature of journalism, this collection makes for easy reading, with frequent chuckles or guffaws. For instance, Spencer writes about small-town newspapering:

“It is not true that The Norwood Post always has a picture of a horse on page one. We missed the first issue. I was still learning to take pictures, and the only decent horse picture I had taken missed the feet and part of the nose. Being a newspaper junkie, I’ve looked at many other front pages, and considering the alternatives, I’d rather see a horse over morning coffee than a car wreck or O.J.’s arraignment.”

But Spencer didn’t confine his opinions to local matters, as in this from 1996:

“If everyone likes what you say, it is not news. It is show business. The same can be said for politics. Democracy by its very nature is messy and spontaneous. When it is carefully scripted and when all the outcomes have been pre-decided, it is much less messy, but it isn’t democracy. It is also deadly dull. Despite extensive news coverage of the Republican Convention and the huge pre-Democratic convention media blitz this weekend, the country has reacted with a rousing ho-hum and given the conventions the lowest TV ratings since ratings have been kept.”

Nor did he avoid taking a stand on local controversies:

“I haven’t thought about destroying things to save them for some time, that is, until reports from the Telluride Council last Wednesday discussing the good guys building a dam to save the river from the bad guys. It is a bad idea … It is fostered by a long series of theories, based on good intentions, but grounded in a nonexistent fact base.”

Spencer’s politics might best be described as “radical centrist.” He thought Republicans were too concerned with regulating our personal affairs, while Democrats tried to erect a governmental bureaucracy to solve every problem:

“Maybe it is time for a new party. A party that is socially liberal, but fiscally conservative. A party that takes joy in the free spirit of America. A party that rewards hard work, but takes care of the less fortunate, not because it is a ‘right,’ but because it is the right thing to do. A party that replaces endless regulations with goals, and allows the people to find their best ways to achieving goals. A party that believes in negotiation, not confrontation and litigation. A party that believes in the least amount of government to do the job, but does not let the government abandon those that are most in need. A party that believes the government is not the best arbiter of morality. A party that has room for a broad spectrum of beliefs and no litmus test for admission.”

This book offers a lot of good reading, with plenty to offend and provoke people of all political persuasions. That’s what a good editor does, and Spencer did his job.

But there are a couple of drawbacks in this volume, probably due to the nature of such a collection.

First, there are numerous references to people and places which will mean nothing to people who don’t live in or near Norwood.

And second, there’s a certain unconscious arrogance sprinkled here and there, that’s partly ascribable to Spencer’s words, but perhaps just as ascribable to the somewhat over-the-top praise of his friends. In places this volume seems to imply: Norwood is the perfect place, and Spencer, as its spokesman, was more cool, righteous, and worthy than anyone else.

And that can be annoying.

But in reality, Norwood is not very different than many Central Colorado communities, and Spencer wrote about universal small-town problems with experience, humor, and a really marvelous talent for one-liners.

–Ed Quillen