This past November, on Thanksgiving Day, West Virginia lost a native son who left an indelible mark on our state’s political history and national journalism.
Charles Peters was born in Charleston in 1926, the son of Charles and Esther Peters. His father was a prominent Charleston trial lawyer, and both parents were active in West Virginia Democrat party politics. Peters was a stellar student at Charleston High School and involved in the drama program. After graduation, he enlisted in the military in 1944 to serve in World War II, but was sidelined due to a serious back injury during training.
In 1946, Peters enrolled at Columbia College (now University) in New York City where he received B.A. and M.A. degrees. During the summers he worked in theatres. He entered law school at the University of Virginia and graduated in 1957. Afterwards, Peters returned to Charleston to work in his father’s law firm and served as a clerk in the West Virginia Legislature. In 1960, Peters was selected to be Kanawha County’s organizer for John F. Kennedy’s bid for the presidency. At the same time, Peters was running for a seat in West Virginia’s House of Delegates. Kennedy, a Catholic, had an uphill battle in a state that was nearly 100% protestant. Both Kennedy and Peters won. Peter’s term in the Legislature was short as he was picked by Sergeant Shriver to help the Kennedy administration start the Peace Corps. Despite his brief tenure as a state delegate, Peters was instrumental in gaining civil service protection for state employees.
Peters imagined he would return to West Virginia after his work for the Peace Corps. Like many West Virginians who came of age during Roosevelt’s New Deal era, he saw the good that government could and should do. But Peters remained in Washington for the rest of his life. To make government more accountable, he started with no experience or capital a magazine – The Washington Monthly. While in Washington, Peters had become a close friend of Jay Rockefeller and was responsible for convincing Rockefeller to move to West Virginia. As one of the magazine’s initial investors, Rockefeller kicked in $20,000.
The Washington Monthly began on a shoestring and offered meager wages and spartan working conditions. Despite never having a large circulation, the magazine was respected and influential. Known as the godfather of neoliberalism, Peters attracted talented writers to work for him. Under his mentorship, many of his writers became first-rate journalists, including James Fellows (The Atlantic), David Ignatius (The Washington Post), James Bennet (The Economist), Katherine Boo (The Washington Post) and historian Jon Meacham. Slate and Politico were each started by former interns at The Washington Monthly.
In a 2021 West Virginia Living article about Charles Peters by publisher Niki Bowman Mills, Peters said, as he reflected on his 95 years, “In many ways, life was much tougher in the thirties, but there was a lot more sunshine in the soul and laugher in the land. We need that laughter today. We need to laugh, above all, at ourselves. If we don’t, we will never overcome the politics of self-righteous, self-pitying interest groups and begin to listen to one another, to rebuild community, and to take the risks that can produce a just and prosperous and democratic society.”
Photo: From PBS.
Sources: West Virginia Living, New York Times, Boston Globe, New Republic, The Primary That Made A President by Robert Rupp.