Founder and former editor-in-chief of The Washington Monthly magazine, he is currently the president of Understanding Government. Peters was born in Charleston, West Virginia in 1926. He attended local public schools, graduating from Charleston High School in 1944. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1944. After his discharge in 1946, he attended Columbia College in New York, receiving his B.A. in 1949 and his MA from the university in 1951. He attended the University of Virginia Law School, receiving his J.D. in 1957. From 1957-1961, he practiced law in West Virginia, and managed John F. Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign in Kanawha County. In 1961 and 1962 he served in West Virginia House of Delegates. He was director of evaluation for the Peace Corps from 1962-1968. In 1969 he founded Monthly and was editor-in-chief until 2001. In 1999 he founded the non-profit organization Understanding Government, of which he is currently president. Peters is the author of four books including, most recently, a biography of Lyndon Johnson. He writes the regular Monthly column “Tilting at Windmills.”
Early life and education
Charles Peters was born in 1926 in Charleston, West Virginia. He attended public schools, graduating from Charleston High School in 1944. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1944, serving at Ohio University, Camp Atterbury in Indiana, and Fort McClellan, Alabama, where an injury in a training accident resulted in his being in Army hospitals for several months, and his discharge from the Army in 1946.
In 1946, he went to New York to enter Columbia College. After receiving his BA in 1949, he entered graduate school at Columbia and received his MA in 1951. In 1952-53, he worked for the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in New York. During the summers from 1946 through 1954, he performed various backstage roles at summer theaters in Boylston, Massachusetts, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and Newport, Rhode Island, and had his own repertory company in Charleston, West Virginia.
After receiving his law degree, he married Elizabeth Hubbell, a former ballet dancer who had attended Vassar College, and returned to Charleston to practice law with his father’s firm, Peters, Merricks, Leslie and Mohler. His practice included libel, criminal defense, corporate and labor law, as well as representing plaintiffs and defendants in civil trials.
In 1959, he was named chief staff officer of the Judiciary Committee of the West Virginia House of Delegates, and in 1960, he was elected a member of the House. In 1960, he also managed the primary and general election campaigns in Kanawha County for presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. After serving in the 1961 session of the legislature, he went to Washington, D.C. to help start the Peace Corps. After returning to serve in the 1962 legislative session, he was named the Peace Corps’ director of evaluation, a position that required him to report on the performance of the agency’s programs overseas and on how they could be improved.
Founding of Washington Monthly
In 1968, Peters resigned from the Peace Corps to begin planning a new magazine, to be called The Washington Monthly.
The magazine’s prospectus said its purpose would be “to look at Washington the way an anthropologist looks at a South Sea island,” helping the reader understand our system of politics and government, where it breaks down, why it breaks down, and what can be done to make it work.” The first issue was published in January 1969. Its articles included “The White House Staff vs. the Cabinet,” “What Happens to a Senator’s Day,” and “The Data Game.” Among the authors were such journalists as David Broder, Murray Kempton, Russell Baker, and Calvin Trillin, as well as people who had worked in government, such as Peters, former White House aide Bill Moyers, and former U.S. Senate aide James Boyd. A similar mix of authors would continue to write for the magazine, but beginning in 1970, the magazine became largely the product of young unknowns, who would typically serve as writer-editors for two years. Among them were Taylor Branch, Suzannah Lessard, James Fallows, Walter Shapiro, Michael Kinsley, David Ignatius, Nicholas Lemann, Gregg Easterbrook, Mickey Kaus, Joe Nocera, Jonathan Alter, Timothy Noah, Steve Waldman, Matt Cooper, Jason DeParle, James Bennet, Katherine Boo, and Jon Meacham. One author characterizes Peters and the magazine as important influences on radical centrist political thought.
Peters served as editor of The Washington Monthly until he retired in 2001. Russell Baker, in an interview in the alumni magazine Columbia College Today, called Peters “a great editor in an age that’s not producing great editors.” Peters continues to write a regular column, “Tilting at Windmills,” for the magazine.
Founding of Understanding Government
In 1998, he founded a non-profit organization called Understanding Government, with the purpose of improving press coverage of the executive branch of government. Understanding Government sponsored the first-ever Prize for Preventive Journalism, given in 2008 to journalist Michael Grunwald, and has published reports on federal agencies including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Lyndon B. Johnson
Five Days in Philadelphia: The Amazing 'We Want Willkie!' Convention of 1940 and How It Freed FDR to Save the Western World
How Washington Really Works
Tilting At Windmills: An Autobiography
Blowing the Whistle (with Taylor Branch)
The System (with James Fallows)
The Culture of Bureaucracy (with Michael Nelson)
A New Road for America: the Neoliberal Movement (with Phil Keisling)
Inside the System (with Timothy Adams – first ed.; with John Rothchild – second ed.; with James Fallows – third ed.; with Nicholas Lemann – fourth ed.; with Jonathan Alter – fifth ed.)
Peters was named the recipient of the first Richard M. Clurman Award in 1996 for his work mentoring young journalists. He also received the Columbia Journalism Award in 1978 and was a Poynter Fellow at Yale University in 1980, the Delacorte Lecturer at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in 1990 and 2003 and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in 1994. In 2001, he was elected to the Hall of Fame of the American Society of Magazine Editors and the Hall of Fame of the D.C. Society of Professional Journalists. In 2002 he was the Times Mirror David M. Laventhol Visiting Professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. In 2003 he received the Carr Van Anda Award from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, Ohio University. He was a Public Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, September 2002 through April 2003.
- Satin, Mark (2004). Radical Middle: The Politics We Need Now. Westview Press and Basic Books, pp. 22-23. ISBN 978-0-8133-4190-3.
- Tilting at Windmills listing
- Washington Monthly bio
- Understanding Government bio
- The Political Graveyard
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