Tilting at Windmills

January/ February 2014 Why bad news should always trickle up … Polyester and merlot … The hippest fund-raiser in New York

By Charles Peters

When I was a child, my father took me to a company town where the miners had to shop at the company store, where they were overcharged but had no choice but to pay. They did so using the script that the mine companies gave them in lieu of cash. I realized something was wrong when I had to pay ten cents for a pack of chewing gum that cost a nickel at every other store.

That was when I was six or seven years old, the Great Depression was at its worst, and Franklin Roosevelt had just become president. Both my father and mother came from farm families for whom the hard times were the hardest. Some lost their farms and several came to live with us as they looked for a job. At the same time, one hungry man after another appeared at our kitchen door offering work in exchange for a meal. Then I began to see the WPA and the CCC building bridges, paving roads, and creating parks. By 1936, our relatives all had jobs, the parade of hungry men at the kitchen door had dwindled, and coal miners and other workers were now able to organize and stand up to their bosses. Watching all that, I knew that government could work.

Years later, I came to Washington to serve in the federal government in the Kennedy/Johnson administration. My agency, the Peace Corps, proved again that government could work. But the truth is, even with good people working hard and making the best decisions they could, we screwed up a lot along the way. We were saved from disaster by a leader, Sargent Shriver, who insisted on keeping close track of how our programs were being implemented, getting the bad news fast, and then acting quickly to fix the problems before they got worse. That’s why those articles appeared in our first issue trying to tell the president and other government administrators to insist, like Shriver, on finding out the bad news and making the necessary changes so that their programs actually work.

Until we meet again

As you gathered from the previous item, I’m an old guy. In fact, I just turned eighty-seven, and there’s not as much gas left in the tank as there used to be, so this is going to have to be my last regular Tilting at Windmills column. When I’ve written it, I’ve always felt like I was talking to an old friend who I haven’t seen for a while, and after the column is published, I always think of what I wish I’d said, or had said better, or of a funny story I forgot to mention. And then, as time goes by, I see new things in the news that fire me up, amuse me, and make me want to grab my old friend by the lapels. So you can be sure that if I’m able, I’ll be back here from time to time. But for now, so long, old friend, and thanks.

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly and the author of a new book on Lyndon B. Johnson published by Times Books.


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