Washington Monthly founder Charles Peters, one of the capital's last idealists, came to Washington with John F. Kennedy's election in 1960 to help launch the Peace Corps. The West Virginia native led the Monthly for three decades as its editor in chief, where he mentored some of the country's most prominent journalists.
Peters, who turns 80 next year, published a book this year celebrating the underappreciated Wendell Willkie, the Republican presidential nominee in 1940. His book -- "Five Days in Philadelphia: The Amazing 'We Want Willkie!' Convention of 1940 and How it Freed FDR to Save the Western World" -- is the story of how an isolationist Republican Party was wise enough to choose an interventionist nominee, giving Franklin D. Roosevelt the political cover he needed to make the crucial preparations for war.
"I wrote this book because I wanted people to understand that it was better then so why the hell can't it be better now," Peters said. "These two great men at this key moment in the history of the world, they did the right thing."
His study of Willkie attracted the attention of presidential aide Karl Rove, who visited Peters at home with a college paper he had written on Willkie and several copies of Peters's book to be signed.
In an interview this month, Peters described what was right about politics then, what is wrong now, and how things could change again.
On the modern primary election system and the death of political conventions:
"You hear the announcers talking about the dull conventions, the staged conventions. There was a time when they really decided things. In 1940, you had started out with a Republican Party that was 80 percent isolationist. But you had the nominee, a firmly anti-Hitler internationalist, just six months later. It was incredible.
"You had this system then that could recognize a Willkie which was so important. This primary thing we've got now is crazy. You are trapped by April 1st. If the present system had existed in 1940, the Republican nominee would've been Thomas E. Dewey. That would not have been great for this country. . . .
"There was a long time before the need for Willkie did not become clear. That need began to become clear in the period between April 9 and June 23, the Nazi invasion of Norway and Denmark on April 9, then the invasion of France, Belgium and Holland on May 10, and then above all, and I'm convinced this was the key thing that gave Willkie the nomination, the June 23rd fall of France, the day before the convention started."
On journalism's obsession with personal flaws of politicians:
"The whole book was such a lesson for me in the absolute insanity of the sex reporting now about public figures. Franklin Roosevelt would've been destroyed, Wendell Willkie would've been destroyed. What the hell would've happened to this country and the world if those two men had been destroyed?
"There is a terrible cynicism in the press today that doesn't lend itself to making Mr. Smith go to Washington. You think Washington's just a total mess and Mr. Smith wouldn't get elected anyway. The wonderful thing about the '30s and the early '40s was the Norman Rockwell self-image: A lot of people lived up to it, not all the way, but a lot of the way. The Frank Capra movies that seem so sentimental today, almost absurdly sentimental, a lot of us really thought that way. 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' was my favorite movie. . . .
"Stop this automatic snottiness about politicians. Stop sneering at them automatically. Begin to think why they do what they do."
On the decline of civic duty:
"There's a lack of encouragement for outstanding guys to get into public life. There was a standard that ran through the country of obligation to do it that turned with many people into finding they loved it. Willkie had been a businessman. Once he got into this campaign he fell in love with politics and public life. Obviously that had happened to Roosevelt, who was imitating Theodore Roosevelt. . . .
"John Kennedy was the last president to say that public service is a proud and noble calling. Even the Democrats, Carter and Clinton, didn't do that. This is a long, long time to go without having public service highly valued in the country.
"I was lucky enough to come in on the last great wave, the three years with Kennedy and then the first couple of years of the Great Society before Vietnam spoiled it. You had all kinds of outstanding people coming into government. The airline stewardesses flirted with me when I said I was with the Peace Corps. It's true."
On the changing type of Christianity in politics:
"I think there was just a whole feeling about life, the Christianity of the day. In Roosevelt's Christmas Eve speech of 1939, he began by talking about Dickens and the 'Christmas Carol,' and he quoted from the Sermon on the Mount and then he said, 'Let us pray that we be given the strength to live for others.' What is the challenge you get from the leadership today? 'What can we do for you?' And from the evangelicals, it's 'What God can do for you? He can save you from that drink. He can help you in your career.'
"On the whole, FDR was the religious leader of the nation. His religion, his view of religion, prevailed. He sold Social Security as applied Christianity. We're now losing to the selfish brand of Christianity."
On the elites' loss of common tastes:
"The whole set of attitudes governing the American people have changed markedly for the worse. Everybody identifies up today. You're always trying to learn what the rich people do, what wine they buy, where they go on vacation, and find that right hill town in Italy and all those little snobberies. Avoiding pretension was the 11th Commandment for an American back then. Everyone imitated a Will Rogers. Will Rogers would not tell you about his cabernet . . .
"Why don't liberals understand that it is not sinful to try to reach out to the average man? They try to distinguish themselves from the people. How do I get junior into college? The [kid] has to play the cello and be out for crew as well as having read Nietzsche in the 10th grade."
"The great majority of people born before 1920 came from rural backgrounds, like Wendell Willkie. Instead of identifying up they identified with folks back on the farm. My father, even as he was being upwardly mobile in Charleston as a young lawyer, still had the interest of the folks back on the farm always. He would rail against high interest rates when they probably would've created more income for him. . . .
"How absurd it is to always be trying to think of ourselves as different or smarter or shrewder or more sophisticated than the other guy, rather than trying to think more about what we have in common with the other guy."
-- Dana Milbank
Peters believes the media's interest in the sex lives of its leaders would have destroyed FDR, top, and his 1940 GOP opponent, Wendell L. Willkie, above.