As a legislator, federal government employee, editor, and author, Charles Peters has consistently called on government to do better in providing services and accountability to American citizens. In 1969, he founded The Washington Monthly, and in the late 1990s a journalism think tank called Understanding Government, as a means to help journalists, and ultimately the public, understand how government works, why it often doesn’t, and what can be done to improve it.
Charles Peters’ career is a sometimes disarmingly frank – and often very funny – critique of politics and government in America. Beginning as a lawyer and legislator in West Virginia, Peters was among the first to respond to John F. Kennedy’s call to national service, helping to build the Peace Corps as director of evaluation. This experience in a new and innovative government agency helped Peters see both the potential to do good, and the often dangerous dysfunctionality, in American government.
As the man in charge of evaluating the impact and effectiveness of Peace Corps programs, Peters saw how they actually worked around the world and, in stark contrast, how they were portrayed in Washington bureaucratic battles. As a natural observer, Peters also watched how Washington worked beyond the walls of his own agency. The result, he would write in his autobiography Tilting at Windmills, was a decision to try to understand American politics through “the institutional imperatives that govern what organizations and the individuals who work for them do.” Peters decided, in other words, “to look at Washington the way an anthropologist looks at a South Sea island.” This meant understanding the culture of government agencies, or congressional office, and the media and other institutions, and how their cultures affected policy outcomes. It means getting the story from inside the bureaucracy — from the staffer who both knew where the bodies were buried and was willing to say just where.
Peters would later describe the essence of Washington bureaucratic behavior as “make believe.” Government workers, knowing problems existed, weren’t eager to tell their superiors what was wrong, and managers at the top of government agencies weren’t interested in finding out –avoiding the possibility of failure by telling a different story to the world than what was really happening. The end result might be as prosaic as wasted money and wasted time, but it could also be as tragic as the loss of human life and livelihoods. In 1969, these reflections – and a strong desire to make his mark in the world – encouraged Peters to launch a new magazine, The Washington Monthly, to tell the story of Washington politics and government agencies from a new point of view.
The Monthly would become an incubator for young reporters who are now a Who’s Who of American journalistic talent, and a bellwether too, predicting major national problems and crises – from the Challenger disaster to the subprime mortgage debacle — often years ahead of time.
The man who would come to be such a trenchant critic of American politics and a successful media entrepreneur was born in Charleston, West Virginia just a few years before the beginning of the Great Depression. In Charleston, young Charlie enjoyed a peaceful childhood and adolescence as the only child of a successful lawyer and loving homemaker. Never wealthy, the Peters family was a haven for relatives who had lost their jobs in the Depression, and Charlie developed a sympathetic understanding of those less fortunate less than he, and learned the value of money – particularly the money that left West Virginia’s coal mines, ending up in the pockets of distant owners.
Peters has led a rich and storied life in the years that followed his stint as a soldier during WWII: attending Columbia University (a classmate of both Allen Ginsburg and Norman Podhoretz); flirting with a life in the theater; chasing girls; working in an New York City ad agency during the heyday of “Mad Men”; assisting John Kennedy in his 1960 West Virginia presidential primary win; working in the Peace Corps; and establishing “The Washington Monthly,” a font of the new political journalism of the 1960s and 1970s (and still a respected voice in American journalism). In the 21st century alone, Peters has published two books, one on FDR and Wendell Willkie (Five Days in Philadelphia) and, more recently, a biography of Lyndon B. Johnson.
As editor-in-chief of the Monthly from 1969 to 2001, Peters essentially ran a postgraduate school for writers and editors, among them Jonathan Alter, James Bennet, Katherine Boo, Taylor Branch, Matt Cooper, Jason DeParle, Gregg Easterbrook, David Ignatius, James Fallows, Mickey Kaus, Michael Kinsley, Nicholas Lemann, Suzannah Lessard, Jon Meacham, Timothy Noah, Walter Shapiro, and Steve Waldman.
Why a film on Charlie Peters?
Because Charlie Peters is not a blow-dried television anchor or a “yelling head” in today’s over-saturated media markets, a man of his accomplishments has been overlooked. His ideas – constructive, witty, and full of human understanding – will find an audience hungry for a different way of looking at Washington. And because a film explaining how Washington really works will be welcomed by a large audience hungry for real explanations instead of partisan accusations. “How Washington Really Works: The Life and Times of Charlie Peters” will be a corrective to public stereotypes about the nation’s capital, looking at how an individual with a unique idea – anthropologically examining power in Washington – was able to create an indispensable guide to the nation’s capital’s power map. The film will not only establish who Charlie Peters is, but will also show, by way of his unique brand of journalism, how American journalism has shifted from being reality-based to becoming fact-free and highly opinionated.
Such an understanding is especially important in the present era where print media, due to cutbacks, is less focused on how government agencies are performing, and TV outlets, broadcast and cable, have opted for the story of the day or scandal from the White House, Capitol Hill and the major executive departments.