Stories From Another Time, for Our Times: ‘We Do Our Part’

Young Charles Peters of West Virginia, then in his 30s, with the candidate he was working for in the 1960 election. Charles Peters
Tales from yesterday, for tomorrow.

To the extent I spent any time studying in college, it was to learn about American history. The main impression the lectures and readings left on me was the realization that the country has always had big, serious problems.

Slavery, violence, corruption, injustice—things were worst-ever during the Civil War, but if you choose your decade, you can name the corresponding set of failures and crises. As I think back to almost any stage in my own lifetime, I can tick off the emergencies of each time: the nearest-ever approach to nuclear destruction during the Cuban Missile Crisis; the embittering years of the Vietnam War; the seemingly nonstop assassinations of the 1960s; and that just brings us to the cusp of presidential impeachment during Watergate and all that followed. The country’s ability to get out of trouble is enormous, which is a good thing given how constantly the troubles have come on.

The good side of being aware of American fallibility is that it helps avoid Golden Age-ism. Yes, 2017-era America has [name your troublesome issue]. But the America of most other eras was more violent, more crime-ridden, more corrupt in certain ways, more closed to many kinds of opportunity. My view is that we can concentrate more clearly on the actual emergencies of this time—which include economic polarization unmatched since the 1890s, and an unqualified, ignorant president unmatched at any point in our history—if we don’t imagine that this is the first generation of Americans to face serious challenges. In addition, studying past crises-and-responses might increase the chances of devising a successful escape from today’s.

But there’s a danger in this perspective: it can lead to discounting any of the moment’s problems as just another phase. Charles Peters has seen even more of American history than I have—he turned 90 recently, and was already active in politics during the 1950s—and he has written a book whose great virtue is to argue that there is something genuinely different and dangerous in the politics and culture of this era, and to suggest what might be done about it.

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I am strongly biased in Charlie Peters’s favor. I’ve known him for most of my life, and half of his. I started my first-ever magazine job at what was then the fledgling publication he had founded, The Washington Monthly, when I was 22 and he was 45. Ever since then I (and my wife Deb) have viewed him (and his wife Beth) as close friends and mentors. Still, I am as objective as I can be in heartily recommending his new book, just as Charlie’s successor as TWM editor, Paul Glastris, did in a recent extensive and very good review, because it fills in a missing part in our current political discussion. Jonathan Martin also did an excellent piece about Charlie Peters, his argument, and his career in the NYT last month.

This book, We Do Our Part, is not directly about the Trump era or phenomenon, though Charlie gets to Trump at the end. But it is all about the resentful, unequal, uncaring parts of today’s American culture that Trump has inflamed and that have made Trump possible—and how to cope with them. Charlie’s essential argument is: Once upon a time, American culture genuinely was less selfish and money-minded than it is now (i.e., that the culture depicted in It’s a Wonderful Life was connected to something real); that a specific set of cultural and political changes led us in today’s unfortunate direction; but that things could again be different.

The “once upon a time” part of the book involves Charlie’s childhood in West Virginia through the Depression, then World War II and the post-war years. Charlie is a contemporary and long-time friend of the writer Russell Baker, and the spirit Charlie evokes is like that in Baker’s sublime memoir Growing Up. Charlie describes how the New Deal motto “We Do Our Part” captured a genuine sense of civic obligation through the shared hardships of the Thirties and Forties. (As in Russell Baker’s book, Charlie’s is also full of vivid, funny, often touching anecdotes of those years and afterwards.) He argues that some of that spirit survived into the 1960s. Charlie spent most of those years as a senior official for the Peace Corps, after playing an important part in John F. Kennedy’s effort to convince the mainly Protestant voters of West Virginia that they could take the risk of voting for a Catholic.

The big change, Charlie argues, came with an epidemic of one-ups-manship and snobbery from the 1960s onward that had the twin effects of dissolving a sense of “us”-ness and supercharging the normal human appetite for money into exaggerated and destructive forms. Technological, market, and global-trade shifts are part of what have changed the America of my Baby Boomer youth, in which a CEO might make 10 times as much as a line worker, into today’s Gilded Age phantasmagoria, with top “earners” getting hundreds or thousands of times more than anyone else. But Charlie charts the eroding concept of “enough”-ness, and of an overall sense of propriety and fellow-feeling, that have accelerated the process.

This sets up the “could be different” part of Charlie’s appeal, which draws on something that Trump’s emergence may already have triggered: thoroughgoing civic engagement across the country, by younger (and older) people who feel as if there is something important about their country they must fight to defend.

I’ll leave the rest of Charlie Peters’s argument to the book itself, and to the precis within Paul Glastris’s review. But I genuinely hope that We Do Our Part will be widely read, especially by young men and women who are just setting out in their professional and civic lives, much as I was when I started working at Charlie’s magazine.

Through his long career Charlie’s passion as a journalist has been matched by dedication as a coach and teacher. (The book’s foreword is by Jon Meacham, one of a legion of notable writers Charlie has fostered and cared about over the years, and the cover blurbs are by two more: Nicholas Lemann and Nicholas Thompson.) I take this book as Charlie’s attempt to teach on a wholesale level, and especially to inform the next generation of Americans that the bad parts of today’s culture weren’t always this way. Knowing that a “fairer and more equal America” is within some Americans’ living memory can help light the path toward a fairer future.