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Carl Rowan: Columnist With Clout

The newspaper columnist's opinions - on everything from politics to toasters - have a far-reaching effect on readers

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``Breaking Barriers'' opens with this scene, and a closing chapter rounds out his account of how he acted out of a genuine fear caused by the trespasser's attempt to enter his house. The gun, he writes, was an ``exempt-from-registration'' pistol kept at the house by Rowan's son, a former FBI agent. He is indignant about the legacy of the event: ``I know that if I died tomorrow, for much of the media my accomplishments would not mean as much as the fact that I was tried for allegedly shooting a `skinny-dipper' with an `unregistered' gun.''

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He is justifiably proud of those accomplishments: He was one of the first black naval officers, a prize-winning newspaper reporter at a time when there were hardly any black journalists at mainstream publications, President Kennedy's US ambassador to Finland, and director of the US Information Agency under President Johnson.

Writing for newspapers in Minneapolis in the early 1950s, Rowan provided penetrating coverage of race relations in the South, concentrating on the quotidian humilities enforced by Jim Crow segregation laws. The stories were widely reprinted, and later published in book form.

``Millions of Americans could not comprehend the details that I was giving them,'' he says now. ``Going into Birmingham and seeing the Imperial Laundry and seeing a big sign on top of the building: `We Wash White Folks' Clothes Only.'''

``Heh, heh,'' he chuckles, gearing up for the punch line. ``I asked the black woman in there why she'd work for a joint like that, and she said, `Well the joke's on them, Mister. They do wash some colored folks' clothes, `cause mine's in that tub over there.'' Rowan laughs a little more at this anecdote.

After other journalistic successes, Rowan served Kennedy and Johnson, and in 1965 took up the mantle of a syndicated columnist. Since then he hasn't provided the gripping reportage that marked his earlier work in the media, but he values the columnist's impact.

``I would say that the column has more impact day-to-day than any reporting could have, because you got people from the White House and all the departments who are looking to see what's being said in the columns, particularly if you are taking an aggressive stance.''

Later he adds: ``I never go to a cocktail party in Washington that I don't run into something I needed to know. And some official may [say] ... `Well let me tell you something, there's some hanky-panky going on on this issue, and you ought to know what the facts are. And these are The Facts.'''

ROWAN concedes that his most popular columns, the ones that draw bags of mail, are typically ``off the news,'' observations on the culture or even on his own life. He says his all-time most popular piece was on the corn-row hair style, a feat of braiding that hit fad status with Bo Derek's appearance in the movie ``10.''

``I wrote a column saying, `Hair ain't where it's at - it doesn't matter how you style your hair if there's nothing under it,''' Rowan recalls. ``Oh boy, did I get the mail.''

Then there was his appliance column. ``There was a little toaster given my wife and me as a wedding gift, and I was sitting there the night before my ... 27th anniversary, and thinking about what I was going to write about,'' he says.

``And I looked over and spotted this toaster and realized it was one of the few appliances or anything that we still had working, and I wrote about,'' his voice drops and slows: ``The Little Toaster That Endured.''