Thankful for Charlie Peters
A renowned editor and journalistic pioneer has died. His example and influence matter more than ever.
At 3:15pm on Thursday afternoon, Thanksgiving Day, Charles Peters took his last breath, at his home in Washington and in the presence of his wife, Beth. He was 96 years old and had spent 66 of those years married to Beth.
The Washington Monthly, the magazine Charlie founded in 1969 and into which he poured his energy, ingenuity, and passion, announced his death yesterday evening, in a notice written by me on behalf of the magazine. It also sent out the news in several tweets, starting here.
With the Monthly’s permission, I reprint in full their announcement, below.
I will add that yesterday evening, when my wife, Deb, and I were with Beth Peters at her home, she said, “On Thanksgiving, I am thankful for Charlie’s life.”
Below is the Washington Monthly article, with headlines and photo as on the magazine’s site. The item below ends with Charlie’s and Beth’s wish that any donations in his memory be made to the Monthly itself, which is a nonprofit and can accept tax-deductible contributions.
Why Charlie Peters Matters
The ideas and example of the Washington Monthly’s founder and editor-in-chief for 30 years, who died on Thanksgiving Day at 96, can play an ongoing and indispensable role in responding to our country’s deepest problems.
Washington Monthly founding editor Charles Peters in 2008. Credit: Gunes Kocatepe/Wikimedia Commons.
By James Fallows, for The Washington Monthly.
Charles Peters, born in Charleston, West Virginia, just before Christmas in 1926, died at his home in Washington, D.C., on Thanksgiving Day. He was 96.
Charlie, as he was universally known, had been in declining physical health for several years, mainly from congestive heart failure. His mind, wit, encyclopedic recall, passion, curiosity, and sense of humor were undiminished until his last days. Charlie frequently said that his partnership with his beloved wife, Beth, who had been a ballet dancer before their marriage, was the greatest good fortune in his long and eventful life. Charlie and Beth celebrated their 66th wedding anniversary last summer. She had been caring for him, with hospice support, in the same modest house in Washington where they had lived since coming to the city in 1961 as part of John F. Kennedy’s new administration. They had jointly determined that, if possible, Charlie would remain at home, with Beth, and in familiar settings until the end. Thanks to Beth’s strength, constant presence, and their hospice support, he could do so. My wife, Deb, and I join the vast network of Peters family friends in sending condolences and love to Beth, their son Chris, and all of their family.
Through his work and force of personality, Charlie directly influenced several generations of journalists and people in government and public life. It’s been more than 20 years since the American Society of Magazine Editors elected him to its Hall of Fame for the example he had set and the forms of journalism he championed during his tenure as founding editor of The Washington Monthly, from 1969 to 2000. In the days to come, you’ll hear in this space from many people who have learned from, worked for, or in other ways have been shaped by Charlie’s enormous presence in our field. Most of them will have laughed with Charlie and argued with him—perhaps both at the same time. They will have loved him and been exasperated by him, marveled at his insights and resented his quirky or imperious demands, rolled their eyes during his animated editorial-guidance pep talks known as “rain dances” but then been motivated or chastened by what he said. All of them have become more aware with the passing years how deeply grateful we are to have been part of his world.
This brief post is meant as a notice of Charlie’s death and an introduction to the appreciations to come.
For a few samples of earlier reflections on Charlie’s work and effect, please see this by Matt Cooper, on the occasion of Charlie’s 95th birthday and this by Paul Glastris, Charlie’s worthy successor for the past 20-plus years as editor-in-chief of the Monthly. Paul’s piece was framed as a review of Charlie’s lastingly important final book, We Do Our Part: Toward a Fairer and More Equal America, which came out when Charlie was 90 and drew on his lessons as a young man during the Great Depression and World War II. I wrote an appreciation of the book as well. Judy Woodruff of the PBS NewsHour did a special segment on Charlie and that book; Jonathan Martin wrote about it in The New York Times. Fifteen years ago, Ezra Klein, then of Vox and now of the Times, did a revealing Q-and-A with Charlie in the Monthly. Early this year, Paul Glastris explained why the “neoliberal” outlook Charlie was proud to have pioneered in the 1980s was entirely different from the crass and heartless market-mindedness that goes by that name now. Together, these pieces offer a very useful guide to the through-lines in Charlie’s thinking about patriotism, about justice, about kindness, and decency, about ways to recreate an American sense of idealism and fellow-feeling. I hope you’ll read and watch them all, read and think about We Do Our Part, and join in the reflections on Charlie and his influence that will be appearing on this site.
Few could dispute that Charlie Peters has mattered. His presence in the Hall of Fame of the American Society of Magazine Editors is only the most obvious indicator. It is more important to realize that he matters and that his ideas and example can play an ongoing indispensable role in responding to our country’s deepest problems.
Charlie Peters matters in the example he has given us for journalism: For reporting that is hard-headed but not hard-hearted, that rides on stories but is anchored in data and fact, that calls out the evil and failures in people and institutions but also recognizes their possibility for good.
He matters in the ideals he has set for his country: That it should be patriotic but not jingoistic, that it can respect the military without being pro-war, that it can celebrate ambition and entrepreneurship without forgetting those left behind, that it should be skeptical of government failures precisely because effective government is so crucial to America’s success.
He matters as a person: Showing that one can be flawed but triumphant, that awareness of one’s flaws can be the greatest strength, and that an open mind and a ready laugh are gifts to all. He fully enjoyed life’s pleasures, including, for many decades, season tickets to what was then a good local NFL team. And he was delighted to have lived long enough to see that team freed from the clutches of its previous evil owner! But in what he said, and more importantly in the way he lived, he warned against the Marie Antoinette effects of big money, lavish spending, and conspicuous consumption. Charlie believed that cheap could be fun.
Charlie Peters matters. Many who have known him will explain why he matters to them. In lieu of flowers, Beth Peters suggests that donations be made to The Washington Monthly, as the truest tribute to Charlie’s memory and ongoing example.
We will miss Charlie tremendously even while his example remains with us.