I first met Peter in 1989 or 1990 when he came to the Twin Cities with David Horowitz to promote Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the ’60s. Having just finished reading the book the day before, I went to see Peter and David at Macalester College in St. Paul. I told Peter I thought the first chapter (“Requiem for A Radical,” on Faye Stender) was by itself worth the price of admission. “Thanks,” he said, in his most unassuming style. In person, he was a delightful and absurdly modest man.
At the time I met them Peter and David had already written three of their best-selling family biographies and were at work on one more, this one on the Roosevelts. For me, however, their abandonment of the left, where they had first made their names, and their eloquent support of conservative causes — they had come out as conservatives in support of President Reagan in 1985 — had served as a thrilling inspiration.
I am thinking especially of Peter and David’s essay “Lefties for Reagan,” originally published in a Sunday edition of the Washington Post on March 17, 1985. It is a wrenching essay that had a substantial impact on me and others at the time of its publication. Peter and David later gave us permission to post it on Power Line under the original title they had given it, “Goodbye to all that.”
Peter went on to found Heterodoxy Magazine with David. Wanting to encourage us, Peter published the first of several articles John and I wrote on the abominable Dongald Barlett and James Steele in an early edition of Heterodoxy and sent us a check that was drawn, as I recall, on his personal account. We were more than encouraged. We were ecstatic.
Peter reflected long and deeply on his days as a radical. My favorite of these refections is his essay “Coming Home,” in Second Thoughts: Former Radicals Look Back at the Sixties. In this essay Peter recalled the trip he took with his laconic father to South Dakota, where his father had been born, while his father was dying. During one long stretch of Nevada highway, his father announced: “You know, I’m glad I was born a South Dakotan and an American. I’m glad I saw the beginning of the twentieth century. I’m glad I lived through the Depression and the War. I think these things made me a stronger person. I’m glad I came to California, because I met your mother there. I’m glad we had you for a son.”
Peter commented: “It was the longest speech I’d ever heard him make…It was a moment of acceptance and affirmation by someone whose life had often been disfigured by hard work and responsibility and for whom words had never come easily. What he said and how he said it was so different from the chic bitterness and facile nihilism of my radical friends that I was shaken. It was like hearing speech, real and authentic speech, for the first time in years.”
Beyond reflecting on his past radicalism, Peter also sought to make amends for it. Peter contributed the brilliant profiles of the then living Medal of Honor recipients whose stories are told in Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Above and Beyond the Call of Duty. I only know because one of those Medal of Honor recipients profiled by Peter — Leo Thorsness — told me so. The book was a project of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation; Leo had been active with the foundation and was most grateful for Peter’s contribution of his services to this awesome book. RIP.