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In ‘We Do Our Part,’ a cautionary tale about losing sight of working Americans

April 3, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
Charles Peters was the one-time election campaign manager in West Virginia for John F. Kennedy, a founder of the Peace Corps and the editor of the Washington Monthly. In his new book, "We Do Our Part: Toward a Fairer and More Equal America," Peters writes about how he sees long-term changes in equality and social progress. Judy Woodruff with talks Peters about major cultural shifts in Washington.
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JOHN YANG: Now: a new book by the one-time manager of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign in West Virginia, a founder of the Peace Corps and the editor of the storied Washington Monthly.

Charles Peters takes on modern America in “We Do Our Part: Toward a Fairer and More Equal America.”

Here again is Judy Woodruff, who sat down with Peters recently and asked him, why this book, why now?

CHARLES PETERS, Author, “We Do Our Part: Toward a Fairer and More Equal America”: I was terribly concerned about the things that had taken us apart, from a country that was relatively together during the time I was growing up.

The Franklin Roosevelt era, I would say, lasted roughly until 1965. Not only were incomes becoming more equal, but the country was becoming more equal, in the sense that blacks were achieving legal rights that they had never known. And our Jewish prejudice was radically diminished by the mid-’60s. And our Catholic prejudice almost disappeared.

So, it was a country that seemed to be coming together. And then just a few years later, the Vietnam War began to split us apart.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You launched a magazine in the late 1960s, you said, because you wanted to look at what the federal government was doing right, and what it was doing wrong, how it could do better.

But you soon expanded that to look at the whole country.

CHARLES PETERS: We felt we had to get into those broader cultural issues.

But the main thing that happened was the snobbery that began with the anti-war movement. That was, I think, one of two really bad things that happened to divide the country. The other was the growth of greed and the conspicuous consumption that fueled the greed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Snobbery.

CHARLES PETERS: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s not a word that’s thrown out a lot.

CHARLES PETERS: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What did you — who do you mean by what happened?

CHARLES PETERS: In the anti-war movement, there was a feeling that the people who were against the war were morally superior to those who were for the war.

Well, I was against the war, but I understood there were an awful lot of good people who believed in the war. That’s when I began to worry about what was going wrong with the anti-war movement, even though I was part of the anti-war movement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You point out a number of ways in which the country, for all of its progress, has gone downhill.

CHARLES PETERS: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And another way is, you cite the greed that you saw crop up among people in Washington who came here originally to do public service, but then that changed.

CHARLES PETERS: Even though it contained that element of snobbery, that was also a beautiful element of idealism in the anti-war movement.

But that gradually changed in the ’70s. I think part of it was simply these people were getting older. The V.W. Beetle was no longer the adequate car. They had to get the station wagon, and then they had to get the house.

But then they got the house. And then they got — it had to be a larger house, and it had to have a workout room, and it had to have a home office, and it had to have walk-in closets and state-of-the-art bathroom and kitchen. And, suddenly, people were into thinking they needed a lot of money.

And then they forgot about the wages paid to the worker. They became concerned with increasing their dividends, meaning increasing profits. And when they read about a plant closing, well, that might increase profit, you know? And we have got to watch those wages, because wages take away from profit.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You see running through this entire book, Charlie Peters, a cautionary tale, especially for Democrats, I think, who have argued that they are the party of the working people, that they are the party of equal rights, equal access, of tolerance.

CHARLES PETERS: Yes. Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you’re saying something was eating away at that from the inside.

CHARLES PETERS: Yes. Yes.

The shame of that is, in many ways, the Democrats were becoming more inclusive, more generous. They were including the causes of gays. They were including the cause of immigrants. And so they’re far more generous towards those people than the Republicans in general.

So, there was much that was going on that was in the best of the Democrats. But this failure on wages, the failure to concern themselves with the interest of the worker, this is where the liberals failed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Much of the theme of the book, it seems to me, is how the Democratic Party has let you down, that you thought there was — that the party could do better than it’s done.

CHARLES PETERS: It’s let the country down in that respect.

But I am still a Democrat, proud to be a Democrat. I — on the whole, we’re on the right side. But in these two ways of getting too involved with making money ourselves — we’re too involved in thinking we’re a little bit better than the other guy.

When they were environmentalists, they didn’t think, whose jobs are this going to cost? If they worked for a certain trade policy, they didn’t think, who is this going to cost, and what can I do to help those people this is going to hurt?

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s an indictment of Hillary Clinton.

CHARLES PETERS: Yes. Unfortunately, yes.

The key symbolic thing that is going to happen now is what Barack Obama decides to do with the rest of his life. If he decides to just concern himself with getting rich, it will be terrible. We need a symbolic leader to say, stop, I want to get off the greed and conspicuous consumption that are sinking this country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You’re 90. The book is a story of the last half-century or more in Washington and of this country, “We Do Our Part: Toward a Fairer and More Equal America.”

Charlie Peters, thank you very much.

CHARLES PETERS: Thank you, Judy.

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