He had a malignant brain tumor, said his daughter Andrea Peirce.
In weekly columns syndicated by The Washington Post Writers Group from 1978 to 2013, Mr. Peirce wrote about transit, education, sustainable growth, labor relations, racist redlining policies, energy conservation, affordable housing and a host of other issues faced by America’s cities and suburbs.
“He was very early in seeing the importance of how regional growth trends were important, and how ‘place’ was central to the economy, to quality of life and ultimately to social inclusion,” said Mark Muro, a metropolitan policy specialist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Now all of this is a truism. . . . But you can’t overstate how novel his thinking was.”
Mr. Peirce’s columns appeared in newspapers from Los Angeles to Boston, and he became a frequent lecturer, a guest on public affairs TV programs and a charismatic ringleader of like-minded urban and regional thinkers, including at annual gatherings sometimes held at his summer home in Bristol, N.H.
“He had a remarkable ability to, first of all, articulate these issues in a meaningful way to a semi-mass audience, and then to bring all these people together to exchange ideas and advance the cause of urban affairs and regionalism — without which it wouldn’t have happened,” said William Fulton, an urban planner and director of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research.
In 1977, Time magazine called Mr. Peirce “the only national chronicler of grassroots America,” and reported that his coverage of a “sunset law” in Colorado, where spending programs were reevaluated each year, prompted legislators to introduce similar measures in eight other states. “He is the link between the preoccupied Washington press and the local reporting done in states,” National League of Cities President Phyllis Lamphere, who also served on the Seattle City Council, told the magazine.
Mr. Peirce began his journalism career in 1960 as a political editor at Congressional Quarterly and left the publication nine years later after the firing of executive editor Thomas N. Schroth, with whom he helped launch the political magazine National Journal. He remained a contributing editor there for nearly 30 years and said he gave the publication its name.
In an interview with The Post for National Journal’s 20th anniversary, he recalled that he was watching Richard M. Nixon deliver a speech when inspiration struck. “In his usual sonorous way, he said, ‘If you’ve been reading the national journals, you know that . . . ’ and I said, That’s it. It sounds important. It’s neutral enough. Also, you can go in a senator’s or an administration official’s office and say, ‘I’m from the National Journal,’ and people will take you seriously.”
In addition to his newspaper column and magazine articles, Mr. Peirce wrote more than a dozen books, beginning with “The People’s President” (1968), a history of the electoral college that also argued for its destruction.
The institution was “born out of short-term political expediency,” wrote Mr. Peirce, who renewed his call for direct presidential elections after 2016, when Donald Trump was elected president despite losing the popular vote by roughly 3 million ballots.
Mr. Peirce went on to write a sweeping, nine-volume portrait of America, after deciding that there was too little information on state and local issues. The best source for an overview of the country was still John Gunther’s 1947 book “Inside U.S.A.,” he said, so he approached the author about potentially collaborating on an updated edition.
Instead, Gunther encouraged him to tackle the project himself, which began with “The Megastates of America” (1972) and was condensed into “The Book of America” (1983), co-written with fellow National Journal contributor Jerry Hagstrom. The book was stuffed with capsule biographies of local political leaders and obscure facts — including that Iowa has only 1.6 percent of the country’s land area but “25 percent of its Grade A topsoil.”
Between volumes of his states series, Mr. Peirce started writing his local affairs column and developed an enduring habit of spending two weeks each month on the road, interviewing elected officials and consulting with regional policymakers.
He enlisted many of them for help with his two-dozen regional “Peirce Reports,” which were funded by nonprofit organizations and published as inserts in newspapers such as the Dallas Morning News and Philadelphia Inquirer. The reports envisioned the region’s near-future and made policy proposals on how to improve it.
“I’m trying to report the best — and worst — of what’s happening in our states and communities,” Mr. Peirce once explained, “to cross-fertilize ideas, to show the amazing new forces at work at the local level, even as the federal government retrenches. Reporting and commentary from the grass roots are needed to give focus, and a national perspective, to what’s happening.”
The youngest of four children, Neal Rippey Peirce was born in Philadelphia on Jan. 5, 1932. His father was a founder of Peirce-Phelps, a radio distributor that later expanded into heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, and his mother was a trained psychiatrist who treated soldiers for “shell shock” after World War I.
Mr. Peirce studied history and humanities at Princeton University, where he was executive editor of the student newspaper and received a bachelor’s degree in 1954. He then served in the Army’s counterintelligence branch for several years in West Berlin.
While there, he met Barbara von dem Bach-Zelewski, whom he married in 1959. She later worked as a textile artist. In addition to his wife, of Washington, survivors include three children, Celia Peirce of Missoula, Mont., Andrea Peirce of Manhattan and Trevor Peirce of Washington; a brother; a sister; and four grandchildren.
Mr. Peirce did postgraduate work in international relations at Harvard University and was a legislative assistant to Rep. Silvio O. Conte, a liberal Massachusetts Republican, before joining CQ. By the time he co-founded National Journal, he had already begun to distinguish himself with his interest in state and urban affairs.
“He was this quirky guy who rode his bicycle everywhere, who wrote about things other people didn’t seem interested in,” recalled Fulton, the urban planner, who met Mr. Peirce as a National Journal intern. “The urban unrest of the ’60s shaped him, and really broke his heart,” he added. After uprisings that included the 1968 Washington riots, “he took it upon himself to try to write about the potential that cities had, and the way that cities could come back.”
Mr. Peirce was also a consultant and national elections commentator for NBC and CBS News, a fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and received many professional honors.
As part of his effort to promote urban and regional studies, Mr. Peirce formed the Citistates Group, a network of journalists and speakers who also researched his Peirce Reports. The group’s name, from a term often used by Mr. Peirce, reflected his belief that “great metropolitan regions” were emerging as “the world’s most influential players.”
In 2014, he launched the news website Citiscope to cover cities worldwide. It was absorbed four years later by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, with Mr. Peirce continuing to write and lecture until shortly before his death. His goal, he said, was to make government “more responsive and humane.”
“Legislation is passed in Washington, but its implementation is in states and cities,” he told Time magazine. “What is important is how it affects people’s jobs and their lives.”
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