Journalism's Relentless Centrist

Charles Peters in 2002.
Charles Peters in 2002. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By David Ignatius
Friday, February 9, 2007

Last month, a group gathered in New York City to celebrate the 80th birthday of Charles Peters, one of the true revolutionaries in modern journalism. For more than 30 years, Peters edited the Washington Monthly-- a liberal magazine with a small circulation but a huge impact on American political culture.

The usual measure of Peters's influence is to look at his alumni, who left the penury of the Monthly and went on to run many of the nation's leading publications. The roster includes Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek; James Bennet, editor of the Atlantic; James Fallows, a national correspondent for the Atlantic; Michael Kinsley, founder of Slate and former editor of the New Republic; Mickey Kaus, who created KausFiles.com, one of the first successful blogs; Nicholas Lemann, a writer for the New Yorker and dean of the Columbia School of Journalism; Paul Glastris, who succeeded Peters as editor of the Monthly in 2001; and many others.

This record of conventional success is so dazzling that it masks the radicalism of what Peters tried to do. From the first issue of his magazine in 1969, he prodded his readers, and editors, to rethink liberal and conservative ideas. He preached a passionate politics of the center -- something that comes out bland and mushy when propounded by today's politicians but which in Peters's version had steel in its spine. (Plus a certain off-the-wall nuttiness that his young assistants tried their best to conceal.)

I worked for Peters as an editor in the mid-1970s, but I left halfway through my two-year indentured servitude to take a reporting job in Pittsburgh (doubling my salary to the princely figure of $17,500), so I'm still something of a black sheep in the family. But Peters has never stopped offering advice or trying, as he puts it, to save my soul.

Peters assaulted "conventional wisdom" (an attitude now so universal in the news business that it has become the new conventional wisdom, but that's not Peters's fault). He told young journalists of the anti-Vietnam generation to respect and value the U.S. military; he told liberal do-gooders to understand why ordinary Americans were so angry about welfare and crime; he told libertarians to value government; he told free-marketeers to care about the health and prosperity of American workers. And he regularly blasted his own editors and readers -- the new class of high-achieving "meritocrats" -- for their obsession with status.

He was famous for his editing "rain dances" -- insults, tirades, sermons and occasional long, sullen pauses -- which were intended to break down the writers' preconceptions and received wisdom. At times, it was a little like the brainwashing techniques of a cult leader. Press critic Jack Shafer gave Peters the nickname "The Bhagwan," which stuck. He could carry his defiance of conventional wisdom too far. (A classic Washington Monthly headline, we liked to joke, would be "Busting Our Mental Blocks About Hitler" or "What the Left Can Learn From Spiro Agnew.")

The Monthly, for all Peters's eccentric genius, was such a stunning financial failure that he always seemed on the brink of bankruptcy. He was like a Dickens or W.C. Fields character scheming to stay out of the poorhouse. During my time as an editor, he came up with a brilliant way of extending the "float," which was to send off his checks unsigned. One of his young editors had to tell an irate printer that he wasn't sure when Mr. Peters would be back in town, while Charlie hid behind the shower curtain in the office bathroom.

Peters gave his quirky collection of "gospel" principles the name "neoliberalism" in 1979. That was an effort to catch some of the wind of the rising "neoconservative" movement and, like most of his marketing ideas, it didn't work very well. The truth, I think, is that Peters was an old-fashioned liberal. He believed in a strong national defense; he identified with working people; he hated elitism and hypocrisy. Because he was personally so broke during the years he ran his money-losing magazine, he never lost sight of the struggles of most Americans to meet the mortgage, pay the doctors' bills and afford a decent life.

Peters basked in the attention of his proteges at his 80th birthday party. But true to form, he had a rain dance, too. Journalists should stop being such elitists. Rather than grumbling about how hard it is to make ends meet on $100,000 and envying the people who make $1 million, they should identify with the American middle class and its struggles. Good journalism, in the Peters version, is still about making powerful people uncomfortable. And about saving your soul.

The writer co-hosts, with Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues athttp://blog.washingtonpost.com/postglobal. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.


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