Charlie Peters, who changed American politics through the low-budget magazine he created and the generations of journalists it trained, died on Thursday. He was 96.
Peters was the founder and longtime editor of the Washington Monthly, which he launched in 1969 after a career in politics that included a brief stint in the legislature of his native West Virginia and then a job in the administration of President John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps.
Peters became disillusioned with politics during the Vietnam War, he would later say, and was inspired by longtime Time publisher Henry Luce that the way to promote change was through journalism ― and, more specifically, by establishing a publication with a clear point of view.
Peters was a self-described New Dealer. But he had also come to believe that the Democratic Party, its constituent groups and some cherished ideas about liberalism needed more scrutiny, because he thought they were undermining the broader liberal cause.
Peters was a longtime champion of national health insurance, for example, but believed bloated government bureaucracies frequently ran programs inefficiently or provided public services poorly. He loved to preach the virtues of equality and despised America’s increasing social stratification, but was regularly critical of unions that he said were unresponsive to their own members and had made the economy less dynamic.
Those beliefs made Peters one of the original promoters of “neoliberalism,” a term many credited him with introducing to the political lexicon, although as American politics and the Democratic Party drifted to the right in the 1980s and 1990s, Peters became remained vocal in his insistence that government take action to guarantee economic security and check corporate power.
Peters believed that probing, aggressive journalism was a key part of his broader project to steer American politics. That included old-fashioned investigative journalism, like an article on rocket booster problems in the space shuttle that appeared years before the booster problems destroyed the shuttle Challenger after liftoff. It also included scathing social commentary, including a 1975 essay called “What Did You Do In the Class War, Daddy?” on how richer kids had used deferments to avoid the Vietnam draft.
James Fallows, author of the article on Vietnam, wrote in a remembrance Thursday that Peters believed America “should be patriotic but not jingoistic, that it can respect the military without being pro-war, that it can celebrate ambition and entrepreneurship without forgetting those left behind, that it should be skeptical of government failures precisely because effective government is so crucial to America’s success.”
Fallows wrote the Vietnam draft article when he was just a few years out of college, at the beginning of a distinguished career that has included decades of writing for The Atlantic and several books. That was an altogether typical trajectory for Monthly writers, whom Peters would recruit at young ages and dispatch to write articles that would inevitably catch the eyes of hiring editors at bigger publications.
Prominent Monthly alumni include Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Katherine Boo, Taylor Branch and Jon Meacham; longtime New Republic writer and editor Michael Kinsley; former New Yorker correspondents and award-winning authors Nicholas Lemann and Suzannah Lessard; and literally dozens of other journalists who now staff newsrooms and broadcast studios across the country.
Also among the Monthly’s high-profile alums is former Clinton White House speechwriter Paul Glastris, who took over the publication in 2001 and has presided over it ever since.
Over the past two decades, the Monthly has cut its print frequency while publishing more online, like most publications of its vintage have. It has also introduced some new features, including an alternative college rankings guide that emphasizes support for social and economic mobility ― something very much in line with Peters’ preachings.
Peters remained involved with the magazine even after stepping down as editor-in-chief, and in 2017 published a book called “We Do Our Part” that ― among other things ― reaffirmed his belief in the importance of public service, especially for the wealthiest and best-educated Americans who had lost touch with the experience of average Americans.
“Peters reminds us that government service was once a broadly shared and elite experience and value,” Glastris wrote in the Monthly after the book’s publication. “To cure the fever, today’s liberals must figure out how to make it so again.”