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

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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.''

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