One journalist's story: a life of `argue editing'

Tilting at Windmills: An Autobiography, by Charles Peters. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley. 294 pp. $18.95. How do you reconcile the paradox of Charles Peters? Here is a man who calls for a ``rebirth of idealism that would lead people to subordinate individual interest to what is best for the country as a whole'' - an idealism that he would have manifest itself in a national service draft, with everyone serving for two years in the military or for three years in a civilian alternative like the Peace Corps or VISTA. But later in the same conversation he calls for the dismantling of much of civil service in favor of a system of political patronage.

Visionary and dynamic are the adjectives that jump to mind to some - naive and confused the likely descriptives to others. The label that Peters once affixed to himself was ``neoliberal,'' which he defines as meaning ``practical idealist.''

Peters is the editor of The Washington Monthly, and he has come to be held as the ``godfather of neoliberalism.'' In this marvelously entertaining autobiography he explains how it all came to pass - and where he feels it should go.

Peters blends humor (``Why write an autobiography if you aren't George Washington?''), invective, and plain common sense in relating his story. It begins with a West Virginia boyhood and a postwar passage through Columbia, where he was taught by Lionel Trilling and Carl Van Doren and influenced outside the classroom by fellow students Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. He tried the theater before entering law school and politics, where his path crossed with John Kennedy's during the pivotal West Virginia primary in 1960. Peters followed Kennedy to Washington in 1960, serving for seven years as a trouble-shooter with the Peace Corps.

All this, his training in the law, his exposure to both the idealism of the Kennedy years and the bureaucracy of the Peace Corps, led him to journalism in 1969. He began with no experience and no money, only the immodest conviction that he ``should start a magazine and change the way journalism covered government.''

What Peters wanted was a magazine that would ``look at Washington the way that an anthropologist looks at a South Sea island ... with an emphasis on understanding the institutional imperatives that govern what organizations and the individuals who work for them do.''

Where The Washington Monthly differs from most other magazines - and where Peters differs from other editors - is in the conception and development of an article. It must begin with a prejudice, or point of view, Peters believes, which should be out in the open. The danger, he acknowledges, is that the writer ``will look so hard for confirmation of his preconceptions that ... he will ignore evidence to the contrary.''

``At the Monthly,'' Peters continues, ``we had an insurance policy against letting our theories triumph over the evidence. It was that the writers and I usually disagreed about what our articles should say.''

Peters calls this ``argue editing,'' and over 20 years it has produced articles that criticized the unfairness of the draft; championed entrepreneurism; supported tax reform; and questioned the safety of the space shuttle booster rockets six years before the Challenger disaster. It gave young and destined-for-greater-things writers like James Fallows, Michael Kinsley, Suzannah Lessard, Gregg Easterbrook, and Jonathan Alter their first national bylines.

Peters's ad hominem declamations on the legal profession and on pretension and snobbery, and his proposals for revamping public education, social security, and other public assistance programs will not convince everyone. But they should give concerned readers pause - force them to search their consciousness and ask how they feel on these matters, and perhaps begin a dialogue that might lead to understanding or resolution. You cannot ask for much more than that from a life's work.

You surely cannot ask any more from a book.

Charles Fountain teaches journalism at Northeastern University.

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