How Charles Peters helped JFK win West Virginia, introduced Rockefeller to the state, and spent more than 50 years holding the federal government accountable.
He never intended to leave West Virginia. He could have been governor—or at least that was his ambition. “That has been a great torment for me—leaving my home state,” Charles Peters says, nearly 60 years later, from his modest town home in northwest Washington, D.C. “I always thought I’d return.” But on May 10, 1960, even if he didn’t know it at the time, the stepping stones from Charleston to Washington, D.C., were already in place. That was the day John F. Kennedy won the West Virginia Democratic primary—the most important presidential primary in modern history. And Charlie Peters had helped make it happen.
Peters was born in Charleston, West Virginia, in 1926. He grew up in a politically astute family. His father was very involved in the leadership of the Democratic party and had served in the state Legislature. Peters recalls that, during the 1940 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, he and his family were so moved by Senator Alben Barkley’s enthusiastic speech in support of Franklin D. Roosevelt that they jumped into a car and drove to the convention, arriving just in time to hear Eleanor Roosevelt’s now-famous “No Ordinary Time” address.
Peters became a believer in how the government can and should help those in need. He watched New Deal projects transform Charleston. A block from his home, the riverfront parkway was built. He witnessed the massive downtown post office rise from the ground and watched the placement of the truss span in the South Side Bridge that crosses the Kanawha River—all New Deal projects. He is often asked why he believes in the possibility of change. And his answer is simple: “I witnessed it. I lived it. I saw how the government could do good deeds.”
He left West Virginia in 1946 to attend Columbia College in New York City, where he spent summers working in theater and became friends with the likes of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. By 1960, he was a young lawyer, having graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1957, and he was campaigning for the West Virginia House of Delegates, driving around town with a “Vote for Peters” sign in his car and going door to door introducing himself to his constituents. That’s when he received a call asking if he’d oversee Senator John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in Kanawha County. He accepted. “But I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy task,” he says.
the hero’s journey
Kennedy was the underdog. He was Catholic, and the population of West Virginia was 95 percent Protestant. Polls showed Herbert Humphries had a 60-40 lead in the state. The Kennedy campaign knew West Virginia could make or break his run for presidency. All in all, Kennedy would spend five weeks visiting every corner of West Virginia. To this day, he is the only president who could say he traveled from Lamar to Lashmeet.
“I’ll never forget the first time I took him around downtown Charleston,” says Peters. “I was trying to introduce him to people. I remember Jack and I were standing on Virginia Street in front of the courthouse. I’d say, ‘Would you like to meet Senator Kennedy? The senator is running for president.’ And people would shun him. They would just keep walking.”
Peters says Kennedy was shocked, and so was he. “This behavior was so atypical of West Virginia,” he says. “At the time, West Virginians were on the whole a very courteous people. But that was what we were up against. People were worried that the Pope was going to take over the country.”
Peters had a few recommendations for Kennedy early on in his campaign: Promote JFK’s military service and wartime valor, get Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr.’s endorsement, and leave Jacqueline Kennedy at home.
The campaign printed thousands of copies of a Reader’s Digest story about Kennedy’s military service and handed them out. “The war record sold me on Kennedy,” Peters says. “The lengths Jack went to to save his men made a great impression on me. I also admired how he and Bobby had taken on the crooked labor unions in an era that Democrats were afraid to take them on.”
Peters, who himself had enlisted in the military in 1944, says he knew West Virginians were great patriots and supported the military—that would play well for Kennedy. “We also knew that West Virginians loved FDR,” he says. “They had benefited from his New Deal projects. But Bobby Kennedy, who was the driving force behind the campaign, wasn’t a fan of Franklin Roosevelt Jr. and didn’t want to involve him. Although I came to admire Bobby, I didn’t like him much then. He was extremely conservative and arrogant, but we managed to persuade him that Jack needed Franklin Roosevelt Jr.’s endorsement.”
Peters’ suggestion that Jacqueline Kennedy should not join her husband on the campaign trail didn’t go over as well. “I was unanimously overruled,” Peters laughs. “I, mistakenly, thought that she’d seem phony and too aristocratic and that folks wouldn’t connect with her. I was wrong. She campaigned with Jack and people loved her … loved their charm and glamor.”
There is one other suggestion that Peters recommended that he isn’t too proud of today. “For years I was so ashamed I wouldn’t tell anybody,” he says. “In essence, I recommended that the Kennedy campaign make liberal donations to Protestant radio preachers. There are uglier words for what I urged. But the campaign did it.”
Peters says he thought at the time that they would lose if the pastors started focusing on religion. “It was close enough that, if the Protestant preachers got ginned up and started preaching that the Pope was taking over West Virginia, we couldn’t recover from that,” he says. “I don’t know if it really had any influence at all, but I’m sharing that to illustrate that there is sometimes a close call between the bad guy and the good guy.”
That election taught Peters an important lesson: Prejudice can be overcome.
“I remember taking Kennedy down to West Virginia State College, and, as we rode in the car on the way, I told him that at this college white and black college students attended together and everybody got along. And this was just six years after Brown v. Board of Education. It was an amazing thing to witness. Folks were getting along. It was happening. So things could be that good. In fact, West Virginia was the fastest border state to integrate.”
It was a busy time for Peters. He was running his own campaign while shepherding Kennedy through Kanawha County. He recounts a story about driving Kennedy to Dunbar to meet with the mayor. He says, “When Jack emerged from the mayor’s office and got in the car, he said, ‘He’s not sure about me, but he’s definitely for you!’”
But Kennedy’s charisma and genuine interest in West Virginia started winning people over, and his days were filled with more and more appearances. “In the beginning, no one would talk to Jack. By the end of the first month, he was surrounded by crowds,” Peters recalls. “One evening, around dinner time, Jack’s good friend Lem Billings called. Kennedy had lost his voice again. Lem asked me if I could accompany Jack on an all-day tour the next day, making eight speeches and a television appearance. Jack would sit there while I did the talking. I thought about it for a minute, entertaining Walter Mitty fantasies of Kennedy praising me after my performance and saying, ‘Charlie, you were great. I want you on my White House staff.’ But I told Lem, ‘no.’ Honestly, I think I was just too worried I’d mess it up.”
On May 10, after the polls closed, Peters walked to the Kanawha County Courthouse, where the returns were posted on blackboards as the votes were counted. By 9:30 p.m., he knew two things: Kennedy had won West Virginia, and he had just been elected to the House of Delegates. He walked to the Kennedy Campaign headquarters and waited until Kennedy arrived from D.C. at midnight. The first thing Kennedy said to Peters was, “Did you win, too?”
While in the Legislature, Peters lobbied for civil service protection, advocated for the creation of a state Human Rights Commission, and passed a bill to prohibit billboards near interstate highways. He also attempted to outlaw eyesores within view of highways. “My main regret about my days in the Legislature is that I did not try to revive my father’s air pollution bill. I should have done that.”
The House of Delegates at that time was composed of 89 Democrats and 11 Republicans. Peters says that, of the 11 Republicans, five were moderate liberals. “In fact, those five were among the most reliable public interest legislation voters you could get. You knew those guys would be on your side when you were fighting the good fight,” he says. “It was glorious those two years I was there. It was in a time when the state’s better angels were winning. Not by a big margin, but they were winning.”
a new frontier
And then Washington called, and the appeal of working to create the New Frontier was strong. Peters decided to help Sargent Shriver with one of Kennedy’s newly created agencies—the Peace Corps. Peters started as a consultant to the general counsel but then became an evaluator. Evaluators went out in the field and created independent assessments and reported those findings back to Shriver, who served as the organization’s founding director. He identified problems like too little language instruction, poor technical training, and lack of accurate preparation on customs and traditions of hosting countries. His reports irritated bureaucrats, who, if left to their own resources, would have reported more positive stories. But those reports were critical to the Peace Corps’ fast expansion and many successes.
Peters went to work driven with an important mission. He was making a difference. “This job fit me like a glove,” he says. “I was surrounded by ideologically like-minded people, and it was exciting to work in the U.S. government in the 1960s.”
But it was time to go home—or so he thought. The governor of West Virginia, Hulett C. Smith, had offered him the job as
his special counsel, which Peters believed would set him up for his own future gubernatorial run. But then Shriver asked him to stay at the Peace Corps and lead the evaluation division. Peters was torn. He wrestled with the guilt of leaving West Virginia. “It was a tough decision. Oh, it was tough. I thought I should go back to West Virginia, but I just couldn’t stop,” he says. “For the first time, I had a job that used all of my talents fully. But I felt guilty. There were parts of West Virginia that needed just as much help as many of the Third World countries that the Peace Corps was serving.”
Peters decided to stay in Washington. But West Virginia was never far from his mind. In fact, while at the Peace Corps, he met someone who not only would become an important part of his life, but who he would also infl uence greatly, changing the trajectory of his life and arguably the future of West Virginia. The man was John D. Rockefeller IV. Peters says, “I met Jay in 1962. He was 24 years old. I was suspicious of his motives. He had just returned from Japan and became the youngest member appointed by Shriver to our national advisory council.”
Th ey hit it off —becoming fast friends, sharing a passion for football and baseball, often attending Washington Redskins games together. Peters says, “Jay was moved by the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty. He’d spent a great deal of time traveling in Asia and had a good handle on international policies, but wanted to gain more knowledge and understanding of domestic issues.”
Peters told him about his home state—about the challenges, the natural beauty, and the hard-working people. He said, “If you are interested in learning about the challenges of the average working man, you need to go to West Virginia.”
And Rockefeller did just that. He took a job in Kanawha County with Action for Appalachian Youth, a project started by Bobby Kennedy. He fell in love with West Virginia and stayed, running for House of Delegates from Kanawha County in 1966—Peters’ old seat—then for secretary of state in 1968 before losing the 1972 gubernatorial election. In 1973 he became president of West Virginia Wesleyan College and then was elected as governor in 1976. From 1985 to 2015, he served in the U.S. Senate.
Even in retirement, Peters and Rockefeller would talk regularly.
the knight errant
Peters loved examining the operation of a government agency from top to bottom, uncovering fraud and abuse. He liked to hold people accountable for their actions. But after four years in the Peace Corps, it was time to move on. As he contemplated his next move, he couldn’t shake the idea that the novel approach of oversight that the Peace Corps had implemented should be applied to the entire government. But how does one do that? He was a great admirer of Henry Luce, the founder of Time, Life, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated magazines, who he felt had proved that one man could change journalism. Champing at the bit, he had a new calling: He was going to start a magazine and change the way journalism covered the government.
He had no magazine experience. And he had no money—something that would plague him throughout his career. He called his friend Jay Rockefeller, told him of his idea, and asked if he’d invest $20,000. He did. Buoyed by Jay’s endorsement and connections, he set about creating a diff erent kind of publication. “I wanted to look at Washington the way that an anthropologist looks at a South Sea Island,” he says.
His journalistic approach embraced a creative nonfiction style, “where facts were reported, not stripped of their flesh, as in traditional journalism, but enriched by a novelist’s feel for the telling detail, for characterization and plot, and for the emotional context of ideas and events,” he writes in his autobiography, Tilting at Windmills. He did not believe that a reporter should remove himself or herself from the storytelling, like a stenographer, reporting only facts. He believed journalism should always advocate a point. He says, “Facts alone without interpretation are not much use.”
Much of his time was spent finding investors to fund this new publication. He says, “I approached a significant proportion of the nation’s rich, but almost all of them turned me down.” A few, though, supported his vision. After Rockefeller’s investment, Peters’ parents also contributed $20,000. Other investors included Alfred Clark, one of the heirs to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune; Louis Marx Jr., the son of the toy magnate; Fiona Rust, the daughter of Marshall Field III; and friend Joseph Crowley, who invested $75,000. Having raised enough money, on January 20, 1969, The Washington Monthly was born.
In 1968 Charlie bought an ad in the New York Times. The copy said:
Announcing—one year too late—The Washington Monthly, a bold experiment in political journalism.
What a year 1968 has been for democracy! From a spring of assassination and riot to a November that brought us within a hair’s breadth of constitutional crisis, 1968 has been the year we all found out what some of us had long suspected—that our system of government is in trouble. And so are we.
Charlie writes, “The ad hit a nerve, producing the most remarkable response that I have ever heard of for a magazine like ours: more than $18,000 in subscription revenues for an investment of less than $3,000.”
When interviewed about his early involvement in The Washington Monthly, Rockefeller said, “Charlie was a drill master. Paid nobody, expected everything, and they all ended up honored to be working there.”
Peters hired young, talented writers who believed in his mission and in him so much that they were willing to work long, stressful hours for a meager salary. His early writers were paid only around $8,000 a year, later receiving a bump to $10,000. Peters, who served as editor in chief from 1968 to 2001, says he edited by argument. Ask anyone who worked for him, and inevitably they will impersonate his Appalachian drawl and his “rain dance”—an animated pacing and waving of arms. No one would ever accuse him of not being passionate about what he does.
the glorious quest
From the onset, Peters and his scrappy team’s mission was to hold Washington accountable—liberals and conservatives alike. But they did more than just report problems in government. They dug deep, looking for solutions. The publication addressed issues before anyone else. Saying it was ahead of its time isn’t quite right. It was right on time. The Washington Monthly tackled topics that needed tackling and planted seeds of change in the government. Congressmen referred to it, and its articles inspired presidential policies, although sometimes it took a little longer for some of those seeds to take root
Peters can’t stress enough how important Rockefeller’s support was. He helped attract other investors. “At that time, Jay looked like he had an unlimited future, even though at that time he was only running for secretary of state for West Virginia. He was an immense help beyond the money he put in,” he says. “I hated fundraising. My fault was that I did just enough to keep us going. There were a couple of times in the early years, we had a chance to go really big, but I didn’t have that kind of entrepreneurial drive. I was only driven to raise money when the business manager would come to me and say ‘Th ere’s only $15 in the bank account.’”
Early on, corporate advertising helped foot the bill. “We had amazing luck in getting corporate advertising early on. John Fox, who had been the West Virginia attorney general, became senior vice president at AT&T. So I went to him. I told him that I needed to get some ads. It felt like such an improbable undertaking. He took me back to meet the marketing guy. And right there on that guy’s desk was a copy of the latest issue of The Washington Monthly. I remember thinking, ‘There is a God!’”
He went back to the office and excitedly proclaimed, “We got one! We got AT&T!” He would later return to Jay Rockefeller and Louis Marx Jr. for more funding. And Rockefeller introduced him to Warren Buff ett. “It took a lot of work to convince him, but Buff ett invested,” recalls Peters.
And then Peters says, “We blew it. We were always one step ahead of the sheriff economically.” The Washington Monthly teetered on bankruptcy and filed for Chapter 11 protection in 1972. Peters mortgaged his house, again.
“The truth is, the money always came—one way or another. Just barely enough to keep going,” says Peters. “But because of my limitations, the money never came in big amounts so that we could seize moments of great opportunity.”
In 2021, the Washington Monthly celebrated its 52nd anniversary. Many believe that Peters’ greatest legacy is the journalists he trained: award-winning writers like James Fallows, Jon Meacham, David Ignatius, and Katherine Boo. “We had an unspoken rule that these writers would come to the Monthly and work around two years, and then they’d land jobs at other publications that paid a much better salary. Everyone understood that unspoken rule,” he says. “That was for their sake. The Monthly was brutal. We had such a tiny staff and we were putting out a national magazine. People worked tremendously hard. You tapped into their sense that what they were doing was important.”
Peters admits he could be difficult to work with and that he pushed his team hard. “I could be tough, but I always tried my best to inspire their best,” he says. And it worked. The mission he set forth was appealing to the young talent he attracted. And the arrangement was appealing to Peters. Not only was he able to run a national magazine on a shoestring budget, but he also trained the best and brightest in the tenets of neoliberalism. When his writers went on to other publications, Peters’ neoliberalism went with them.
we do our part
Peters is credited with coining the term “neoliberalism” in the late 1970s, and this became his gospel. He believed the Democratic party was losing its way. “Neoliberals differ from conventional liberals both in our ideas and in our approach,” he says. “We care about human problems, but we realize liberalism went too far in endorsing big government and being tolerant of crime. Liberals need to support and embrace entrepreneurship and small businesses.”
Peters abhors snobbery. And he feels snobbery, dismissiveness, and credentialism have been the downfall of his party. He believes liberals should stop dismissing rural white working class as “boobs and bigots,” and that understanding requires empathy, not accusation. Only then, he says in his most recent book, We Do Our Part, published in 2017, will the party win back the working class in a “We Do Our Part” coalition.
He says he learned his disdain for snobbish behavior in junior high school. “I was offended by that snobbery. I am indebted to my fellow seventh- and eighth-grade pupils in the sheet metal and woodworking classes at Thomas Jefferson Junior High School. I was smarter than they were in history and English, but they excelled in working with their hands and in common sense decision-making. Why should anyone look down on them?”
Peters has written several books over the years in addition to his autobiography, including How Washington Really Works, Five Days in Philadelphia, and a biography, Lyndon B. Johnson. But he feels so strongly about the need for the Democratic party and the country to right its ways that We Do Our Part is almost a desperate call for action. He writes, “Neoliberals believe in keeping their political absolutes to a minimum. For me, that minimum consists of allegiance to the Declaration of Independence, the First Amendment, and the Golden Rule. They are the secret of American’s potential greatness and the rudder that gives direction to my life. What they mean for me are human concern and practical help for those who have fallen on hard times, and freedom and justice—not for one privileged class, race, or religion, but for everyone.”
Peters’ body may be aging, but his mind is sharp and politics still fires him up. “Political discussion can’t be held in an echo chamber, where no one listens to the other side,” he laments. “We have to be willing to concede when conservatives have a decent and good point. ‘I see your good point, now please listen to mine,’ we should say. Politics is an art of persuasion. It is least effective when we self-righteously call the other guy a racist and most effective when we bring out his pride in being generous and open-minded.”
To say that Peters is worried about the direction of the country is an understatement. When asked about the current state of affairs, a sadness settles in and clouds his dark eyes. “Ugly speech can lead to ugly action,” he warns.
His comments prove prescient. Little did he know a band of insurgents would storm the U.S. Capitol, the seat of democratic government.
But Peters, ever the possibilitarian, says, “We can’t give up. There is a better side to our character. We just need a leader who appeals to it, who calls for the best within us instead of the worst.”
He may have written the book How Washington Really Works, but, in reality, he admits, Washington doesn’t really work. “The government is solving far too few of the nation’s problems,” he writes. “Too many of the decisions that govern our lives are made by bureaucrats and lobbyists who are not accountable to the people or by elected offi cials who have not won on level playing fields.” But having witnessed the wonders of the Roosevelt era, he knows that it once again can.
“In many ways, life was much tougher in the thirties, but there was a lot more sunshine in the soul and laughter in the land,” he says. “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.”
Even at 95 years old, when you mention West Virginia, Peters lights up with a sense of boyish excitement and pride that will bring tears to your eyes. If his body would allow him, he’d talk for hours and hours about his home state and how West Virginia can once again show the country that change is possible and prejudice can be overcome. His hope for a less divided country makes you believe that our “better angels” can prevail—that it isn’t an impossible dream—if only we open our hearts and our minds to the lessons he shares. “West Virginians are capable of great things,” he says. “I know it. I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it. We were once on an upper trajectory—and we can be there again, if we all do our part.”
to learn more about charles peters
Read his autobiography, Tilting at Windmills, and We Do Our Part. A short documentary was also created in 2014 by Norman Kelley entitled, How Washington Really Works: Charlie Peters and the Washington Monthly.