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Charles Peters, Washington Monthly Founder, Dies at 96

Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post
Charles Peters in 2011.

Charles Peters, founder and longtime editor of Washington Monthly, considered himself the Don Quixote of journalism. On an anemic budget, he guided a low-circulation but influential muckraking periodical that for a time became a must-read in policymaking circles on Capitol Hill and in the White House.

Launched in February 1969, Washington Monthly trained a magnifying glass on the federal bureaucracy. The publication was likened at times to a self-appointed inspector general, such was its interest in holding obscure government agencies accountable.

Peters, who died Nov. 23 at 96, vowed his magazine would probe Washington “the way that an anthropologist looks at a South Sea island” and “not from the standpoint of the outsider, but from the standpoint of the informed insider.”

Some of its best-known articles questioned the fairness of the draft during the Vietnam War, revealed Army intelligence spying on civilian protesters in the United States and questioned the safety of the space shuttle’s booster rockets six years before the explosion of the Challenger in 1986.

Over the decades, the Washington Monthly’s indefatigable and ornery spearhead was Peters, a New Deal Democrat who served in the legislature of his native West Virginia and once aspired to run the state as governor. Instead he came to Washington after playing a critical role in John F. Kennedy’s win in West Virginia during the 1960 presidential race.

He was rewarded with a job at the newly created Peace Corps, overseeing efforts to ferret out waste, fraud and abuse in its worldwide operations. By all accounts, he excelled at the work, but his political idealism was vanquished by the deepening war in Vietnam.

Peters quit and used his deep-pocketed political contacts to start his magazine, which he hoped would fill a void in bold-voiced, fine-grained coverage of the nation’s capital. Or as the prospectus in the first issue stated, it would be a magazine that would help readers grasp “our system of politics and government, where it breaks down, why it breaks down, and what can be done to make it work.”

Although its circulation never topped 30,000, Washington Monthly gained influence among the District’s policy and journalism elite for its consistent tone of indignation. Peters admitted it was mostly liberal indignation, once quipping of the noted right-wing commentator, “You won’t find James J. Kilpatrick here.” President Jimmy Carter was reputedly a subscriber.

To contribute political analysis, Peters recruited established voices such as David S. Broder, Russell Baker, Hugh Sidey, Murray Kempton and Bill Moyers.

To staff the magazine, whose coffers were seldom flush, Peters lured raw, ambitious cubs, then drove them mercilessly. “We basically invited them in and then killed them for two years for absolutely no money,” he told the New York Times in 2000.

Though few made more than $12,000 per year during his tenure as publisher, the staff writers received one of the most exacting and intense educations in Washington journalism.

The alumni roster included Taylor Branch, who later became a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian; authors and journalists Katherine Boo and Jon Meacham; Slate founder Michael Kinsley; Washington Post columnist David Ignatius; Timothy Noah, a senior editor at the New Republic; Suzannah Lessard, who became a New Yorker staff writer; and Nicholas Lehmann, a former Post journalist who became dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Peters, small and intense, with deep-set eyes encircled by dark rings, could often be unbending in his demands. One contributor told The Washington Post in 1988 that Peters forced her to finish an article as another, more important, deadline approached: her wedding. He would often demand rewrites from reporters late into the night and during their vacations.

When incensed, he would erupt into fits of rage, arms flailing, hopping, screaming. The fits became known as “Charlie’s rain dances.” One outburst so scared Kinsley as a young reporter that he hid in the bathroom for two hours. Kinsley once described Peters as a strong molder of promising editors: “He likes them al dente, with just a little bit of resistance.”

Peters did not spare himself from his legendary stinginess. For decades as editor and publisher, he earned $24,000 a year. His wife’s salary from the Georgetown Day School kept food in the pantry.

“The Washington Monthly was the place where you would get the most interesting and the most detailed analysis of the bowels of the government and its function and the various issues surrounding the public policy issues of the day,” said Charles Lewis, the founder of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative watchdog organization in Washington.

“The Washington Monthly provided that public service to the country and the city of Washington in a way that no one else was doing,” Lewis added.

Finding his footing

Charles Given Peters Jr. was born in Charleston, W.Va., on Dec. 22, 1926. He was the only child of a trial lawyer involved in state Democratic politics.

In his memoir, “Tilting at Windmills” (1988), the younger Peters wrote that he was largely shielded from want during the Depression but was exposed to relatives who either could not find work or were reduced to working jobs far below their skills.

“From then on I could never accept the fundamental tenet of American conservatism that anyone who really wants to can get a job and get ahead,” he wrote.

After graduating from high school in 1944, he entered the Army during World War II but a serious back injury during basic training kept him convalescing until after the war ended.

In the hospital, he came across a copy of a book by the Columbia University cultural historian Jacques Barzun, and its description of the New York intellectual firmament “sounded wonderful to me,” he once told the Boston Globe. “But the other thing that, unquestionably, went right along with that was the image of myself going to New York and dating chorus girls every night.”

In 1946, he enrolled at Columbia University and, attracted to what he called their “unconventionality,” fell in with a group of writers and intellectuals who formed the core of the Beat movement, including Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.

Peters graduated in 1949 with a humanities degree and then received a master’s degree in drama in 1951, then worked for the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in New York. He also performed in summer theater and ran his own, in Charleston, before entering law school at the University of Virginia.

He graduated in 1957 from law school, worked for his father’s firm and began clerking for a member of the West Virginia House of Delegates. He so enjoyed the task of analyzing and summarizing legislation that he made a successful bid for a House of Delegates seat in 1960.

That year, Peters led then-Sen. John F. Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) presidential primary campaign in Kanawha County, W.Va. Kennedy’s win in the county – in the largely Protestant state – helped show that he was capable of victory nationally despite reservations some voters had about voting for a Catholic.

After a term as a legislator, Peters was rewarded by Kennedy with a job in the newly created Peace Corps leading its training evaluation department. At the volunteer agency, he wrote and oversaw “eyes only” reports on Peace Corps operations for director and Kennedy in-law R. Sargent Shriver.

In 1966, Peters was tapped to head the organization’s research division, but he was growing disillusioned with a career in the federal bureaucracy. “Working in the government,” he wrote in his memoir, “was no longer exciting. Vietnam had taken care of that. I wasn’t proud of what [President Lyndon B.] Johnson was doing there – I was ashamed and depressed.”

The seeds of Washington Monthly began to sprout. He was convinced his experience learning about government waste, fraud and abuse – and why it happened – could be applied to a journalism venture. He wrote that his goal was to “change the way journalism covered government.”

To raise money for the venture, Peters secured a $20,000 loan from a Peace Corps colleague, John D. “Jay” Rockefeller IV, the future U.S. senator from West Virginia and heir to the vast oil fortune. He supplemented that with loans from his parents and Alfred Clark, an heir to the Singer sewing-machine fortune.

The first issue

Production of the magazine, starting with its maiden issue in February 1969, was a proudly renegade operation.

“We would stay up all night to paste up the magazine – we were doing the paste-up and the printing out of the copy,” Branch told the Boston Globe in 1989. “I used to bring a bottle of bourbon and we would stay up all night and shoot rubber bands at each other and then be editing.

“Then Charlie would come in at 3 o’clock in the morning and want to rip things up and start over because he’d just thought of something that, you know, might end the Vietnam War if we changed it and put it in an article. It was a fraternity party on the ramparts.”

Circulation rose to 23,000 by 1971, the year the Washington Monthly won the coveted George Polk Award for a report by Christopher Pyle, a former captain in U.S. Army intelligence, on spying by the military on thousands of civil rights and antiwar protesters.

The article attracted the interest of Sen. Sam J. Ervin Jr. (D-N.C.), who led a subcommittee on constitutional rights. The Army Intelligence Command, which helped conduct the surveillance, shuttered within a few years. The Ervin hearings generated support for the Privacy Act of 1974, which limits how government agencies share a person’s data.

The Monthly offered a consistently critical editorial line against the Vietnam War. One piece, written by John Rothchild in 1971, probed into the voting records of U.S. senators who claimed to be against the war but continued to vote in favor of its continued financing.

Peters was credited with coining the phrase “neoliberalism,” a movement he briefly helped spur in the 1980s as traditionally liberal thought and policies were under assault during the Reagan years. He tried, for example, to pry liberals away from knee-jerk support for labor unions.

Peters was the co-author of books including “Blowing the Whistle” (1972) with Branch and “How Washington Really Works” (1980), a scathing look at bureaucrats.

In 1957, Peters married Elizabeth Hubbell. In addition to his wife, of Washington, survivors include a son, Christian Peters of Riverside, Calif.; and two grandsons. His death, at his home in Washington of complications from a respiratory ailment, was confirmed by his wife.

Peters stopped working in the magazine’s newsroom in the mid-1970s after a heart attack scare that turned out to be a hiatal hernia. He managed its operations from his living room and wrote a column, Tilting at Windmills, a reference to Don Quixote charging imaginary enemies.