Charles Peters, founding editor of The Washington Monthly, a small political magazine that challenged liberal and conservative orthodoxies and was avidly read for decades in the White House, Congress and city newsrooms, died Thursday at his home in Washington. Washington. He was 96 years old.
His death was confirmed by The Washington Monthly, which reported that Mr. Peters “had been in declining physical health for several years, primarily due to congestive heart failure.”
Often called the “godfather of neoliberalism,” the magazine’s central political doctrine, Peters was editor of The Monthly from 1969 until his retirement in 2001. He also wrote five books on politics, government and history, and a column, “Tilting at Windmills,” which offers concise reflections on politics and current events, from 1977 to 2014.
His work was not widely read, much less understood by the general public. But to Washington insiders, his voice was important in the capital’s cacophony. His neoliberalism offered liberals and conservatives reasons to step back and, if not to find compromises, at least to reevaluate their core beliefs.
In “The Neoliberal Manifesto,” which first appeared in The Washington Post in 1982, Peters laid out the broad philosophy of the neoliberal movement. “We still believe in freedom and justice and a fair chance for all, in mercy for the afflicted and in help for the dispossessed,” he wrote. “But we no longer automatically favor unions and big governments, nor do we oppose the military and big business. In fact, in our search for solutions that work, we have come to distrust all knee-jerk responses, liberal or conservative.”
Peters amplified his message in an interview with The New York Times in 1984, saying that his movement favored a strong national defense with a military draft, firing public school teachers who had been deemed incompetent, helping businessmen who created jobs, the end of Social Security for the rich and patriotism, as long as “it is not false flag waving.”
Andrew Hearst wrote in The Columbia Journalism Review in 1999: “Peters and his magazine began to help redefine liberalism by defending a series of positions that at the time were most associated with right-wing Republicanism: enthusiastic support for entrepreneurship and an attitude of hard line. towards criminals.”
Peters’s neoliberalism, he added, “helped influence the Democratic Party’s turn toward the center.”
Peters, a West Virginia Democrat who grew up during the Great Depression and World War II and adored President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, honed his ideals as a local official in John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign and later. as a Peace Corps executive, responsible for evaluating its overall performance.
When he founded The Washington Monthly, Peters envisioned a magazine that would also evaluate (Washington’s) performance by focusing on the flaws and weaknesses of politics and government, a task that many critics found quixotic. He kept a drawing of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza on the wall of his office.
With no experience in journalism, he began with the premise that Washington was a poor job and said his magazine would examine its culture “the same way an anthropologist looks at a South Sea island.” She promised to help readers “understand our system of politics and government, where it fails, why it fails, and what can be done about it.”
Nothing was prohibited. It focused on the presidents, the Capitol, the Pentagon, both Democrats and Republicans, lobbyists, the press; They were all grist for the mill. The Monthly found a self-validating Washington, where bureaucrats passed the buck, journalists got their news from press releases, military leaders favored wars to advance their careers, courts served lawyers rather than to the law, and no one was really responsible.
“In government, as in human beings, the fat tends to be concentrated at the middle levels, where planning analysts and deputy administrators spend their days writing memos and attending meetings,” Peters wrote in his 1980 book, “How Washington really works.” “
Operating on shoestring budgets, with anemic advertising, and rarely with more than 30,000 subscribers, the magazine achieved notable successes. A 1977 article, “The Other Washington,” documented the growing power of lobbyists, and a 1980 scoop warned of dangers in NASA’s space shuttle program six years before Challenger disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean. , killing its seven crew members.
A tough mentor, Peters launched the careers of dozens of young reporters and editors who accepted low salaries to learn serious advocacy journalism. Many became famous authors and journalists. Some took prominent positions at The Times, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, national magazines and broadcasters, and at online journalistic mainstays like Politico and Slate.
Among the students were James Fallows, correspondent for The Atlantic; Nicholas Lemann, former dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism; Jonathan Alter, author and former editor of Newsweek; Suzannah Lessard, writer for The New Yorker; Taylor Branch, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian; David Ignatius, Washington Post columnist; James Bennet, former editorial page editor of The Times and now senior editor of The Economist; and Katherine Boo, a Pulitzer-winning investigative journalist.
Charles Given Peters Jr. was born in Charleston, W.Va., on December 22, 1926, the only child of Charles Sr. and Esther Teague Peters. His father was a prominent trial lawyer and Democrat in state politics. Young Charles had a rebellious streak and at age 13 he was sent to the Kentucky Military Institute, near Louisville. Harassed, he quit after a year and went home.
At Charleston High School, he earned excellent grades and participated in student council and theater activities. After graduating in 1944, he joined the Army, but a serious injury during training left him hospitalized until World War II ended.
He graduated from Columbia College in 1949 with a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts and earned a master’s degree in English from Columbia University in 1951. He considered a theater career, but decided on politics and earned a law degree from the University of Virginia in 1957.
He married Elizabeth Hubbell that same year. They had one son, Christian Avery. He is survived, as are two grandchildren.
Peters won a seat in the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1960 and ran John Kennedy’s campaign in the state’s largest county, Kanawha, with Charleston, the capital, as his seat.
He joined the Kennedy administration in 1961 as a Peace Corps evaluator, reporting to R. Sargent Shriver, its director, on the progress of volunteers working at home and abroad. He became chief of research for the Peace Corps in 1966, but resigned a year later, depressed, he said, by the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War.
For all his liberal leanings, Peters wrote in his autobiography, “Tilting at Windmills” (1988), his decision to publish The Washington Monthly was inspired by Henry R. Luce, the conservative editor who founded the Time magazine empire and changed the United States. journalism introducing a point of view into news coverage.
“The conclusion seemed obvious,” Peters wrote. “I, too, should start a magazine and change the way journalism covers the government.”
Paul Glastris, former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, succeeded Peters in 2001 as editor of the magazine, which became published bimonthly in 2008, citing costs. In 1998, Peters, who lived in Washington, founded Understanding Government, a nonprofit that evaluated federal agencies. It closed in 2014.
His latest book, “We Do Our Part: Toward a Fairer and More Equal America” (2017), urged Americans to abandon a culture of “self-absorption, self-promotion, and making a barrel of money” and instead embrace values of the Roosevelt era, when, he said, “the spirit of generosity was accompanied by a sense of neighborliness” and “those who had little helped those who had even less.”
Eduardo Medina contributed with reports.