Charlie Peters, Washington Monthly Founder and Mentor to Leading Journalists, Turns 95

After helping to found the Peace Corps, the former West Virginia legislator started this magazine in 1969 and molded it for 32 years. 

by Matthew Cooper

December 22, 2021

Washington Monthly founding editor Charles Peters in 2008.

A little over 20 years ago, I made a short film in honor of Charlie Peters, the founding editor of the Washington Monthly. The American Society of Magazine Editors was inducting my old boss and mentor to its Hall of Fame, a kind of Cooperstown of glossies. Held at a glitzy luncheon at New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel, the editors of venerable titles lavishly toasted themselves as the National Magazine Awards were handed out. (In retrospect, it had an end-of-an-era feeling, with 9/11 and the collapse of so many publications in the offing.)

My short film was a precis to Charlie getting his Thalberg. It began with shots of the Time-Life Building, the Newsweek building, and the Condé Nast tower, followed by voiceover narration: “… and this is the Washington Monthly.” Cut to rickety stairs in a dilapidated building over a liquor store in D.C.’s Dupont Circle.

Much of the crowd laughed, getting the contrast—and the improbable story of Charlie and the publication he founded in 1969, which has now survived far longer than many of the slick publications being fêted that day.

Charlie was almost 75 when he was being hailed in 2001. Today, he deserves an even bigger toast as he turns 95. Please help us celebrate by donating to the Washington Monthly. Your donations keep this magazine going.

For those of us lucky enough to have visited with Charlie at his Washington home recently, we’ve found him physically slower but still sharp—a remarkable achievement for a man born during the Coolidge administration. When I saw him last, in September, we talked family and Joe Biden, and Charlie remembered a moment from my 1997 wedding like it was a month ago. (His lovely wife, Beth, a former ballerina, appears ageless.) Yes, Charlie’s body shows its age, and he doesn’t get out much, but his mind still glows.

Washington Monthly contributing editors Timothy Noah (left) and Michael Kinsley (right) with the magazine’s founding editor, Charlie Peters, in 2019

Peters, with the Monthly as his crucible, reshaped the lives of so many young writers, including myself, who would go on to become prominent journalists. They include James Fallows, Jon Meacham, Katherine Boo, Nicholas Lemann, Michelle Cottle, Jonathan Alter, Gregg Easterbrook, Stephanie Mencimer, David Ignatius, Joe Nocera, and Michael Kinsley, another Hall of Fame winner. It wasn’t just that a bevy of smart kids passed through the Washington Monthly, as if it were another ticket to punch between college and The New York Times. It’s that we were transformed. We learned, in Charlie’s phrase, to cover Washington like an anthropologist covers a South Seas island. And not just to cover it with an eye for what’s wrong, but to write about things that work—a task that, especially at the time, most journalists eschewed, fearing that they’d seem opinionated or biased.

I came under Charlie’s spell in the 1980s, when he hired me as an editor, and we worked in those ratty offices I mentioned (and an earlier set we vacated when the rent got too high). My salary was $10,000 a year—just under $23,000 in today’s purchasing power, actually just enough to get by in pre-gentrified Washington. I’d fallen in love with the magazine when I was in college at Columbia in New York City. My best friend, Marc, subscribed, and I got hooked reading his copies.

Eventually, I became so enamored that I habitually raced every month to a nearby luncheonette/newsstand on Morningside Heights, which got the issue a bit ahead of Marc’s. I’d lap it up with scrambled eggs and a bialy. It was funny and irreverent, yes, but also softhearted and hardheaded.

Working for Charlie was not, shall we say, easy. In the days before HR departments were everywhere and the phrase “work-life balance” had become a cliché, Charlie rode us hard. Usually, he had two young editors at a time cranking out a monthly publication, a staff far smaller than even other financially strapped opinion magazines. We’d work for two years and then move on. Why endure the low pay and long hours? Charlie was not a masseur of copy (“Let’s move this paragraph here”) or a Rolodex impresario (“Call Senator So-and-So for comment”). He expressed his ideas in his inimical “rain dance,” a kind of sermon, if you will, in which he’d become increasingly animated about a point he was trying to convey to one of us. His corpus of ideas was fondly referred to as “the gospel.”

I remember one article I suggested about how our culture lacked a Charles Dickens, a first-rate writer with a large audience who could evoke sympathy for the poor, something well needed at the time (it was the Reagan era). Charlie immediately got the idea and elevated it. We need someone who not only sparks empathy with the easily lovable, law-abiding Cratchit of A Christmas Carol, he told me. But also with the criminal, decidedly non-saccharine Artful Dodger of Oliver Twist, which is much more challenging but crucial.

Charlie could also be a tough taskmaster. One night after being up for days, I went to his home amid a snowstorm to drop off copy, leaving it in an old-fashioned steel milk box on his stoop. Fearing getting stuck, my cabbie refused to take me back to the marginal neighborhood where I lived. (This sounds like a Dickensian tale, but these were the earliest days of email. And neither the Monthly nor Charlie had a fax machine.) By the time I made it back to my garret, as sunrise approached, Charlie was calling me to tell me how I’d erred in editing a story about Gary Hart. (The real scandal, Charlie said, wasn’t the Colorado senator with a young woman aboard the yacht named Monkey Business, which transfixed the mainstream media. It was Hart, whom we liked, cavorting with the Louisiana lobbyist who owned the boat.) I can’t remember what subpoint I flubbed. I do remember that I assumed wrongly, but not without reason, that I’d been fired.

At 95, Charlie is still a lodestar guiding me. Part of it is political. He has retained his belief, born of experience during and after the Depression, of how government can change lives for the better. As a supporter of John F. Kennedy in the crucial 1960 West Virginia primary and later as the director of evaluation of the Peace Corps, he saw how politics could inspire and how government succeeded and failed.

But much of our admiration stems from Charlie’s personal example, and not just because he was a Negroni man decades before the hipsters. So many idealists come to Washington to do good and stay, as the phrase goes, to “do well”—meaning to enrich themselves. Charlie is a huge exception. He paid himself a pittance and lived on the edge of financial ruin to make this magazine work. When Paul Glastris (also a former editor) took over the Monthly in 2001, he kept Charlie’s lessons and ethos, frugality on everything from higher education—with the magazine’s revolutionary college guides—to its powerful reporting on monopolies. As Paul says, all of us have Charlie’s voice in our head, asking, “Is that good enough?”

If you think the Monthly’s brand of solutions-based policy-focused journalism is essential, and if you want to celebrate Charlie’s 95th birthday, there’s something you can do: Make a donation. In fact, do it right now.

As a nonprofit, we cannot do our work without your support. And as a celebration of Charlie Peters, I can’t think of a better gift. Plus, as a token of our gratitude, if you give $50 or more, you’ll receive a free one-year subscription to the print edition of the Washington Monthly.

Matthew Cooper is Executive Editor Digital at the Washington Monthly. He is also a contributing editor of the magazine and a veteran reporter who has covered politics and the White House for Time, The New Republic, Washingtonian, National Journal and many other publications.

3 Comments

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  • Matthew,

    After returning from Colombia as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I came into contact with Charlie at Peace Corps headquarters where he headed up its Evaluation Unit. He had come across an evaluation I had written on a PC program in Colombia and wanted to interview me as one of his evaluators. Sadly–for me, I didn’t pass his evaluation test. But I did go on to work with him down through the years at Peace Corps/Washington into the early 1970s. He had put together a much needed Evaluation Unit and had Peace Corps followed in the implementation of its results, it would have been a much more effective organization when it came to programming.

  • In August or September of 1967, I was a candidate for the Peace Corps Fellows program. I had six individual interviews. The last one of the day was with Charlie Peters on the top floor of the old Lafayette Square building.

    Charlie shook my hand, invited me to sit down in one of his comfy chairs, and asked if I wanted a drink. He said that he had word from my previous interviews already, and that I had the job if I wanted it, so we could just have a chat. I learned then about Sarge Shriver’s institution of Peace Corps evaluations, about using academics and journalists from outside the agency to interview Volunteers and host country personnel to get the real PC stories directly back to him.

    We rotated offices as Fellows, and Charlie later invited me to be part of an evaluation team in Iran. My partner on the evaluation was Park Teter, an academic who had taught at the American University in Beirut, married an Iranian, and was fluent in Farsi. I spoke Turkish and Charlie must have sensed that I would be able to communicate in Azerbaijani. Neither of us spoke Arabic or Kurdish or any of Iran’s many other languages and dialects, but Charlie had covered at least two of Iran’s many languages.

    At the time, the Shah had declared himself “King of Kings,” and was looking towards a 2500 year celebration of the Persian Empire dating to Cyrus the Great. Most Volunteers knew that he was aggrandizing rather than developing the country. Some engineers and planners were upset with having to work on parks and monuments directly honoring the Shah. We reported that in our exit interview with the ambassador. It did not go down well.

    But that evaluation got me a hitch with the German Peace Corps. They were just embarking on an evaluation program. I spent a month with them, 10 days of it in the field in Tunisia. I subscribed to the Monthly for years, reading the national scene from my rural place in Oregon, knowing that Charlie wanted to “evaluate” the rest of government as he had Peace Corps programs. I dropped it somewhere along the line. Reading this piece now, and thinking about Charlie in my own life, and him still up and kicking at 95, I might have to resubscribe.

  • All of us as we age may question our intentions and the effect of others’ intentions. But how to we know even then asolutely?
    I have a poem maundering about intention. Ed
    VAN RIJN, OBIDIAH, DOUG, MARGARET

    Cats may have no intentions.
    Except for her eyes, Obidiah is white
    as the commode bowl.
    Van Rijn, smaller than Doug’s boot,
    is black. That boot
    has great intentions.
    When Margaret sees Van Rijn
    she’ll say she ‘loves’ him.
    Large word: ‘love’.
    Margaret’s no mapmaker.
    She wanders that country.
    Doug ‘digs’ the ocean.
    Margaret will come back,
    pass out of range, of love
    full of tears, enthusiasm
    for things were truth known
    full of rain, storms.
    Doug never gets past Seal Rocks,
    but he’s gone again
    to walk through park to sea.
    Obidiah is white.
    Van Rijn is black.
    The boot had great intentions.

    (C) Copyright Edward Mycue 27 December 2021

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