Mad Man Charlie Peters Comes To Washington, Part One

We all know Kennedy’s line how success has a thousand fathers, and failure is an orphan. We know, too, those of us who follow those early years of the Peace Corps, that everyone who was there at the beginning, in one way or the other, winks and whispers, ‘well, if it wasn’t for me….’

The truth is that the backbone of the Peace Corps creation was Warren Wiggins and Bill Josephson and their ‘Towering Task’. That paper gave Shriver the spear he needed to carry. Harris Wofford was the philosopher/king of the Peace Corps, with his grand vision for the agency and the Volunteers. (Charlie Peters once said to me that everyday Wofford had a thousand new ideas and 999 of them were worthless, but the one good idea left was brilliant!)

We know, too, that Bill Moyers with his connection to LBJ saved the Peace Corps from being part of AID, and his role as Associate Director for Public Affairs created the image, the myth, and the mythology of the Peace Corps that has lasted all these years.

There was one other central person who really mattered in how the Peace Corps was developed, the man who from almost day one kept the agency on the straight and narrow, a person, Wiggins said, who had one of the “few first class minds” at the Peace Corps, and that was Charlie Peters, Chief of the Division of Evaluation.

Charlie was not a Mad Men type, (but he was really a Mad Man!). He would never have made it into the script, but he would have if this program was real and not made for t.v. 

Charlie was from West Virginia. He was a small town lawyer and a state legislator. He was more of out the pages of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men then Madison Avenue world of advertising, but a good script writer (or novelist) would know they had a jewel in Charlie. Charlie Peters was the real deal. Ask any of the Evaluators who worked with him in those early years.

Charlie came from an important family in the rural West Virginia and he managed JFK’s successful campaign for the presidency, no easy thing to sell a Boston Catholic in that Protestant state.

During the 1960 campaign Charlie impressed everyone from Washington, everyone in the New Administration, all those Irish Boston Mafia: Larry O’Brien, Kenny O’Donnell, Bobby Kennedy, and when they asked Charlie what job he wanted in Washington, Charlie Peters said he wanted to work in the Peace Corps. They could have shit!

Kenny O’Donnell, for one, hated the whole idea of the Peace Corps. He told Bill Haddad, who ended up in the Peace Corps himself, that the Peace Corps was just a ‘campaign gimmick, a kooky, liberal reform idea.” 

O’Donnell was part of the pragmatic Kennedy camp, as Coates Redmon pointed out in her book. Peters, however, coming from the back of the beyond, Charleston, West Virginia, had a vision of the future.

The Kennedy team owed Charlie for winning West Virginia so Kenny O’Donnell called Shriver and told him that Charlie Peters wanted to be part of the new Peace Corps. And to O’Donnell’s credit, he told Sarge that Charlie was the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Word spread quickly among the Mad Men that a great man was coming out of West Virginia to join the new administration. A great man who only wanted to work with the Peace Corps. He was coming to the Peace Corps with high praise from Kenny O’Donnell, Larry O’Brian, and Bobby Kennedy himself.

But who was Charlie Peters?

Shriver and the Mad Men would soon find out.

[End of Part One]

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  • True enough. Charley was as unlike the other egomaniacs in the early Peace Corps, but he was – in his own way – an egomaniac. His idea of a discreet, almost underscover, Evaluation Division helped Peace Corps end bad programs, exit poor staff, and keep Peace Corps Washington’s eye on the ball: what was happening overseas.
    He had no sentimental interest in Peace Corps Volunteers as such. He didn’t think we were “special.” That was a good mind set in those early days when Volunteers liked to make Washington-types think they really did walk on water.

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