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Charlie Peters: The Genuine Article
Charlie Peters: The Genuine Article
By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 30, 2001; Page C01
Charlie Peters isn't doing his rain dance. Not yet anyway.
Peters, the founder and editor in chief of the Washington Monthly, is famous for his rain dances. They have nothing to do with precipitation -- or choreography, for that matter. Rain dances occur when Peters edits a story. He calls in the writer and he starts bellowing about the flaws in the article -- which tend to be instances where the writer has dared to contradict Peters's neo-liberal gospel. Peters harangues and preaches and paces and waves his arms, which is why his victims call it the rain dance.
Anybody who has ever worked for the Monthly -- a group that includes many of America's most prominent journalists and authors -- can tell stories of rain dances, some frightening, some funny.
But right now, Peters isn't doing a rain dance. He's sitting at his usual seat in La Tomate, an Italian restaurant near the Monthly's ratty office in Dupont Circle, and he's calm, soft-spoken, almost mellow. Why not? At 74, he's about to retire from the Monthly, and this Wednesday he'll be inducted into the American Society of Magazine Editors' Hall of Fame, joining such magazine legends as Hugh Hefner, Gloria Steinem and Jann Wenner.
So Peters orders his favorite cocktail, a negroni -- equal parts vodka, Campari and vermouth -- and talks about his decision to retire after 32 years at the magazine.
"I love doing this thing," he says in his soft West Virginia drawl, "and if I didn't have to do the business side, I'd do it until I dropped dead."
The business side has always been the problem at the Washington Monthly. It's a very influential magazine, read by lots of media and government hotshots, but its circulation never climbed much past 25,000. It's too iconoclastic to appeal to many advertisers, which is why Peters pays his long-suffering editors only $12,000 a year and himself not much more -- in recent years even less.
"It's been one step ahead of the sheriff the whole time," he says, laughing. "It's been fairly terrifying."
But Peters won't have to worry about that anymore because, as of today, he has turned the magazine over to Paul Glastris, who worked at the Monthly in the '80s, then spent 10 years as a reporter for U.S. News & World Report before becoming a speechwriter for President Clinton in 1998.
"He'll make a great editor of the magazine," Peters says.
Glastris, 42, is a calm, levelheaded fellow -- not a rain dance kind of guy. "And a lot of people will thank God for that," Peters says, grinning.
"I'm easier-going," Glastris says, "but no less determined when it comes to pushing an article where it needs to go."
The Monthly never made any profit, but now it will become an official nonprofit -- published by a foundation called Understanding Government, which Peters set up a few years ago to help fund long-term journalistic projects. The foundation will pay Glastris a salary as pathetic as Peters's was -- about $10,000 a year -- which Glastris will supplement by working part time as a senior fellow at the Western Policy Center, a local foreign policy think tank.
Clearly, Glastris says, "I will not be rich."
Neither, of course, was Peters. If his wife, Beth, hadn't worked as an administrator at Georgetown Day School, Peters would have starved to death long ago. But that doesn't bother him. He was never in it for the money. He was in it to exercise his constitutional right of free speech.
"The great blessing of my life is that I've been able to speak my mind and say what I believe," Peters says. He leans forward intensely, his big fleshy face looking very serious beneath his bushy gray eyebrows. "I had a chance to live with integrity and not take any [bleep] from anybody. That means an awful lot to me." Corps Values
Peters always did speak his mind. But sometimes he didn't know what he was talking about.
Back in 1960, when he was running for the West Virginia House of Delegates, Peters gave some unsolicited advice to the staffers of a presidential candidate: Don't bring the candidate's wife to this state. West Virginians willthink she's a phony.
The candidate's wife was Jacqueline Kennedy. Her husband wisely ignored Peters's advice and he won West Virginia.
Back then, Peters was an ambitious lawyer who hoped to become governor of West Virginia someday. Born in 1926, he grew up in Charleston during the Depression. His father was a lawyer and the family was well-off, but there always seemed to be less-fortunate relatives sleeping in the living room while they looked for work. Seeing good people reduced to poverty turned Peters into an ardent New Deal liberal.
In 1944, when he turned 18, he joined the Army, but the war ended before he saw any action. He enrolled at Columbia University, where he befriended Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, the future Beat writers. After graduation and a miserable year working at an ad agency, Peters went to law school at the University of Virginia, married a beautiful ballet dancer named Beth Hubbell, and became a trial lawyer back in Charleston.
In 1960, during his successful campaign for the House of Delegates, Peters met Jack Kennedy, who was running in the West Virginia presidential primary. Despite Peters's dubious advice about Kennedy's wife, the two men became friends. When Kennedy was elected president, he hired Peters to work at the Peace Corps.
His job was to travel around the world evaluating Peace Corps programs. He loved it. He enjoyed figuring out why some programs worked and some didn't. Soon he had a whole staff of evaluators working for him. The best ones, he found, were journalists.
"They were skilled observers," Peters wrote in his 1988 autobiography, "who could report what they had seen in prose that was readable."
In 1968, Peters got an idea: Why not start a magazine that would evaluate all kinds of government agencies the way his staff evaluated Peace Corps programs?
He raised some money -- from financier Warren Buffett and future senator Jay Rockefeller, among others -- and began publishing the Washington Monthly in January 1969. It was a wonderful magazine -- smart, savvy, provocative and sometimes delightfully funny. Naturally, it lost money -- a half million in the first five years.
After that, Peters figured out a successful formula: "I applied the Peace Corps principle -- find bright young people and pay them miserably, but only make them work for a short period of time."
And, he might have added: Work them like slaves, scream at them and insert your own political views into their stories.
"It's a trial by fire," recalls Michelle Cottle, who worked at the Monthly for two years in the late '90s before moving to the New Republic. "Charlie is extremely difficult. He's proud of it. He'll rant and rave and scream and swear. . . . I remember once standing in the middle of the office yelling, 'You will not have a heart attack over this!' because he was turning purple."
The Scream Team
"Maybe you don't have to yell as much as I do," Peters says, "but you do have to yell."
He's sipping his negroni and working on a plate of green ravioli and reflecting on his rain dance style of management.
"Sometimes, I'm embarrassed at myself," he says. "I realize I've been too tough on them."
For a moment he seems genuinely contrite. But only for a moment. "Those 'Paper Chase'-type professors in law school played a good role because they scared the [bleep] out of you. Everybody needs somebody who says, 'This reasoning is sloppy.' That way it won't happen again. People say, 'I don't want to get yelled at again. I'm going to do this right.' "
He pauses. He smiles sweetly. "The Monthly," he says, "is some combination of the Marine Corps and the Peace Corps."
He loves the Monthly's alumni. He really does. He rattles off the names of some of the most famous -- Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer; Nicholas Lemann, author and New Yorker writer; Suzannah Lessard, who also went on to the New Yorker; James Fallows, now at the Atlantic; Michael Kinsley, editor of Slate and ubiquitous talking head; Walter Shapiro, the USA Today columnist. And on and on.
"I can't tell you how much those guys have meant to me," he says. "Next to having an independent voice, that's what kept me going -- having those relationships."
His eyes are filling with fluid. He's getting choked up. "They mean so much to me," he says. "And they mean so much to each other. They're close, even the ones who never worked together. They shared this common ordeal. It's tough. It's very tough. They have to work really hard."
He starts touting his favorite Monthly articles: The Gregg Easterbrook piece that revealed flaws in the space shuttle years before the Challenger blew up. A piece comparing the performance of the American embassies in Morocco and Mali. A piece on the Office of Management and Budget.
"What I like the best," he says, "are the articles about government agencies and what they're doing right and wrong."
The waiter appears. Peters orders another negroni, then tells the story of how he began writing his monthly column, Tilting at Windmills, which consists of several pages of miscellaneous musings, some angry, some funny, some philosophical.
"That was Nick Lemann's idea," he says, grinning. "I was famous for trying to get whatever my current enthusiasm was into their articles. As you can imagine, this was somewhat unpopular with the other people. The classic office joke was: If the article was about agriculture policy, I'd try to get in a paragraph about aircraft carriers because that was my pet idea of the week."
He pauses a beat. "That made for some unusual mixtures in the articles." He laughs. "So Nick said, 'Charlie, what you should really do is write a column.' And of course, anybody's ego would go for that."
He plans to keep writing the Tilting column for Glastris. Which is probably good for his health. If Peters didn't have an outlet for his voluminous opinions, his head might explode. Showing the Way
"Look out for the OSHA violations," says Stephanie Mencimer, pointing to electrical wires that are taped on the floor of the Washington Monthly's office.
Mencimer, 31, is one of the Monthly's two co-editors -- the last to labor under Peters's semi-benevolent dictatorship. She steps past ancient, battered desks and chairs held together by duct tape and a window where a wire runs down to an office on a lower floor, where a friend has hooked the Monthly up with a free Internet connection.
She points to the ceiling above her desk. "Roaches run out of that light fixture," she says.
This is one funky office. It has the look -- and, if truth be told, the smell -- of some low-rent, Lower East Side lair of an obscure socialist splinter group from the '60s. In January, the heat was cut off while the landlord renovated the building, which will soon house an Ann Taylor clothing store. The Monthly folks have to find new digs by September.
Peters rarely showed up at the office in recent years. He says he gets distracted when employees start panicking because the magazine has run out of money yet again. So he worked at home, directing the troops by phone. Even his rain dances were phoned in.
"He'll call you up," says Nicholas Thompson, 25, the Monthly's other co-editor. "He starts out mumbling, then he starts talking about what's wrong with the story -- 'It's horrible! You've got to change it!' He'll just keep jabbing at you. . . . He'll say, 'You've failed me. You've let me down, you jerk.' "
But Thompson's not complaining. He says rain dances are good. "You know that this is a terrific editor who is trying to make your story better," he says. "He's a great editor, the best I've ever worked with."
Which is about the way most Monthly alumni feel about Peters. First they tell you hair-raising stories of horrific rain dances in which Peters screamed and cursed and humiliated them. Then they tell you that he's a great editor and a wonderful man who cared about them and mentored them and helped them get a good job when they left the Monthly.
"Charlie is a huge portion of my life," says Lemann, who recalls rain dances with fondness: "He gives you a pep talk, an exhortation about how to fix your article and how that relates to making the world a better place. It's not haranguing you. It's almost a preaching thing. It's taking you to the mountaintop and showing you a better you down below."
"The dominant strain in Charlie is his idealism," says Taylor Branch. "I think he'll be seen as somebody who kept the spark of idealism and public service alive during some tough times."
"He started an important political and intellectual magazine," says Glastris. "The ideas in that magazine ultimately changed the press, the Democratic Party and the country." Passion and Politics
The ideas in the magazine were, of course, Peters's ideas. Contradictory notions tended to get trampled in a rain dance. Peters's philosophy combined the New Deal liberalism of his youth with a dose of hardheaded skepticism about government bureaucracy. It came to be known as "neo-liberalism," a phrase Peters says he coined in a booze-fueled speech at the Monthly's 10th anniversary party in 1979.
"Somebody called us neo-conservatives in The Post that day," he recalls. "I said, we are not neo-conservatives, we're neo-liberals. We still believe in programs for the poor, but those programs should work."
Peters sips his negroni and tells war stories about the ideological battles of the last three decades.
"I had tremendous fights with my staff in the late '60s and early '70s," he says. "I wanted to run an article called 'Criminals Belong in Jail' and they said, 'Charlie has certain fascistic tendencies.' " He laughs. "That's a perfect example of neo-liberalism because I believe in being tough on violent criminals but tender on nonviolent criminals."
In the '70s, Peters says, he was more conservative than most of the Monthly's editors. But by the '90s, he was more liberal than most, retaining his Depression-born faith that government could be effective in helping poor people. These days, for example, he's a champion of a Canadian-style socialized medical care.
"When I was in the Army, I broke my back and I received marvelous care under a socialized system," he says. "My basic feeling is that the other life-protective services -- the fire department, the police, the military -- are under public control, so doesn't it make sense that health care should be under public control?"
In an age of bland corporate magazines, Peters is a throwback to an earlier era of passionate muckrakers. "Peters has epitomized the crusading, public-spirited editor envisioned by the nation's founders as a bulwark of democracy," reads his Society of Magazine Editors Hall of Fame citation. "Peters has created a small but extraordinarily influential political magazine that has changed the policy debate in Washington."
"That's nice," he says when the citation is read to him. But he can't help mentioning that for 32 years, the society never gave the Monthly one of its annual National Magazine Awards. "That's been a matter of some irritation to us," he grumbles.
Now that he's quitting as the Monthly's editor, Peters will have to confine his political crusades to his Tilting column. But he won't be idle. He's writing a book on the presidential campaign of 1940 and running the Understanding Government foundation, which funds journalists interested in investigating government agencies.
Meanwhile, Glastris says, the Monthly will continue in the Peters tradition. "I'd be proud to have put out any of the issues of the past year," Glastris says. "There are some different stories I'd like to get, but to say that I have firm plans is an exaggeration. I'm learning as I go along."
For the time being, at least, the main change at the Monthly will be the absence of rain dances.
"The rain dance is gone," Peters says. "That's over."
He looks a bit sad about that. Then he remembers something and he perks right up. "Except for my Understanding Government writers! I can still torture them in phone calls." He laughs and then launches into a spontaneous pseudo-rain dance: "Jeez, I can't believe this! I can't believe you wrote this line! Why didn't you see this? This is so damn obvious!"
© 2001 The Washington Post Company