Terry McLaughlin: Nevada County, and our nation, have lost an important voice with death of Peter Collier
Sitting on my coffee table is a prized possession, an autographed copy of “Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty” by Peter Collier.
Many articles have been written about Nevada City resident Peter Collier since his passing on Nov. 1, in which he has been described as a prolific biographer and novelist, literary impresario, and tireless cultural warrior. Many residents of Nevada County were extraordinarily lucky to know him well. Regretfully, I am not one of them. I met Peter Collier exactly three times.
In our first meeting, I learned only that Peter Collier was a writer. I was intrigued enough after that initial encounter to “Google” his name, and found that he had authored the aforementioned book profiling American Medal of Honor recipients. I purchased the book and arranged to have coffee with the author.
It’s impossible to express how inspired I was by the man that I met for a simple coffee. Highly intelligent, funny, humble and sincere, he shared some significant events from his life, beginning in 1966 when he left UC Berkeley, where he was working on a Ph.D. A self-described left-wing firebrand, Peter joined his friend, David Horowitz, on the staff of “Ramparts,” one of the most radical and influential magazines of its day. According to Peter’s colleague, Roger Kimball, the magazine “helped launch Hunter S. Thompson and spring Eldridge Cleaver from jail … It also helped to make the Black Panthers a national phenomenon.”
Collier and Horowitz collaborated on a number of biographies of dynastic families; the Rockefellers (1976), the Kennedys (1984) and the Fords (1987) among them. In the late ’70s the two found themselves reassessing their support for the radical causes of the 1960s and early 1970s. In an interview with the New York Times, Horowitz said that “a catalyst in their conversation was when a woman named Betty Van Patter was found dead in San Francisco Bay in January 1975.” Six months earlier Horowitz had recruited Van Patter, a Ramparts employee, to be the bookkeeper for a group connected to the Black Panther Party. Horowitz wrote in “Salon” in 1999 that he was convinced she had been killed by the Black Panthers themselves and “The Panther murder was a summary moment for both of us. We were affected significantly by the way all our progressive comrades defended the Panthers and claimed ‘the white power structure killed Betty’”.
Peter shared with me that he and Horowitz referred to themselves as “second-thoughters” and in 1985 the duo published “Lefties for Reagan” in The Washington Post. In it they explained that they had voted for Ronald Reagan for president out of their disillusionment with the left in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.“One of the few saving graces of age is a deeper perspective on the passions of youth,” they wrote. The two were transformed almost overnight into enemies of The Movement and their ideological shift drew almost as much attention as their biographies.
The Los Angeles Times stated “They go like lumberjacks on a two-man saw, enthusiastically cutting through a forest of former beliefs.”
In 1989, the two published “Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the Sixties.” Running for president in 2000, George Bush said that “Destructive Generation” was one of the three books that had formed his world view on how America veered off course in the postwar era. In the preface to a 2005 edition, the authors wrote that they were asked by “the handful of our old comrades who still speak to us” how they could have gone “from being bitter critics of America to being defenders of its promise and advocates of its power to do good in the world … The answer we give is not one that they like: at some point it is time to grow up and construct a profit-and-loss statement of one’s commitments and their consequences.”
In 1998, Peter took the reins at a new publishing company called Encounter Books. Until his retirement in 2005, Peter published books from renowned authors such as Victor Davis Hanson, Michael Novak, and Thomas Sowell, in an attempt to “illuminate the most exigent political and moral questions of the day and by so doing to help change the world for the better.” Peter wrote several books extolling the virtues of the American military, including his 2003 book celebrating Medal of Honor recipients. At his bequest, the considerable royalties earned by Collier from this book have been donated to the nonprofit Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation.
He expressed to me his regret that, while he never spat upon soldiers returning from Vietnam, he witnessed these actions, condoning them by his silence. His contribution to the Medal of Honor Foundation, he explained, was an attempt to make amends for actions of the past.
Of this book, the author wrote: “Some say a nation is defined by its heroes. If so, we Americans are very fortunate indeed. What the men in this book did to earn the Medal of Honor, and what they have done in the years since then to carry its formidable weight, should give us confidence that this country — which our enemies foolishly underestimate and which we ourselves constantly worry has lost its footing — is in fact a growing ground for character, endurance, determination, and guts.”
I asked Peter if he would speak about his experiences interviewing these Medal of Honor recipients at an event I was helping organize to honor our local Veterans in November 2018. Peter was quick to agree. That was the third time I had the privilege of meeting with this inspirational man.
There are so many questions left unanswered, and so much more that I had hoped to learn from him in the future. His ability to analyze the past and articulate his perspective is unsurpassed.
Our community and our nation have lost an important voice, a friend, a neighbor, a patriot. “The fame he achieved was limited; the admiration he elicits is wide.” (National Review, Nov. 25).
Peter Collier, Rest In Peace.
Terry McLaughlin, who lives in Grass Valley, writes a twice monthly column for The Union. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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