In His Country's Service

THAT Carl T. Rowan's book went to press just as Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait last summer is a blessing in disguise. Devoid of Gulf war talk, it serves as a gripping reminder of the domestic political agenda that has taken a seat at the back of the bus as Americans are fixated on the war.

When that crisis ends, and hopefully even before, readers will want to turn to Rowan's book (``Breaking Barriers: A Memoir,'' Little, Brown, 395 pp., $22.95) for some of the most thoughtful commentary coming today from the liberal side of the political spectrum.

The shaping influences on Rowan - Depression-era poverty and racial discrimination overcome with a mix of Horatio Alger-style self-reliance and the GI bill - have helped make him the consummate Washington insider with impeccable outsider credentials.

Rowan has felt compelled to open and close his memoirs with lengthy defenses of his shooting of a young white male intruder at his Washington home. Any personal history that left out the incident would be incomplete. But the length and detail of his comments makes the reader realize that the sting of the incident remains, including what he believes were uninformed and unmerited attacks from fellow columnists. (The Monitor's Godfrey Sperling Jr., the Chicago Sun-Times' Georgie Anne Geyer, and long-time conservative sparring partner James J. Kilpatrick are singled out as among the few who ``bothered to get the facts'' and write supportive columns.)

Between these covers is a memoir full of colorful inside details by a man obviously proud of his accomplishments. His unvarnished accounts of conversations with President Johnson during Rowan's years in government service are particularly lively and insightful, even though many of his Johnson quotes are unprintable in a family newspaper.

Here's one that is. During the early stages of the Vietnam War, Rowan, as head of the United States Information Agency, sat in on meetings of the cabinet and security council. In nearly every one of these meetings, writes Rowan, Johnson would give ``some version of this soliloquy:

``When I was a boy in Texas, my grandpappy used to tell me, `Boy, don't let that bully chase you off the school ground, 'cause if you let him chase you off the school ground, he's gonna chase you down the street. And if you let him chase you down the street he's gonna chase you right into your yard. You let that bully chase you into your yard and he's gonna chase you right on up onto your front porch....' We're doing what we're doing in Vietnam 'cause we can't let the bully chase us off the school yard.''

The domino theory, Johnson-style.

Rowan left the administration in 1965 to write his syndicated column, and despite the Vietnam fiasco, remains a staunch defender of Johnson. If judged on his civil rights record alone, Rowan says, Johnson ``would today be ranked with Lincoln and FDR as one of the nation's greatest leaders.'' Whatever his ``foibles and idiosyncrasies,... Johnson was the best president that the poor, `at risk' people of America ever had.''

Though he treats Johnson at the greatest length, all the postwar presidents, and may other prominent Americans, get their turn. On Harry Truman: ``No president in the nation's history stuck his neck out farther, or risked more in terms of his own political future or of the nation's well-being, in order to espouse the first-class citizenship of the Negro.'' On Adlai Stevenson: ``One of the most indecisive men I have ever met in high office.''

Rowan had a unique perspective on Martin Luther King and his assassination. While inside the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, he read confidential memos from Herbert Hoover's FBI as it tried to depict King as an unfaithful husband and a Communist sympathizer. Later, as a King confidante and friend, he warned King that his opposition to the Vietnam War was harming the unfinished civil-rights agenda. Did the FBI order King's murder? ``I shall go to my grave,'' Rowan writes, ``believing that Hoover, [assistant director] Sullivan, and others in the FBI had a role in silencing the black man they professed to fear, but surely hated.''

Rowan asks that we overlook any of King's personal indiscretions to marvel at his contribution. ``When children celebrate Martin Luther King's Birthday, the emphasis must be on his courage, his oratorical skills, his uncanny leadership, his ultimate sacrifice.... It says something good about America that we have a national King holiday, while virtually the only mention of Hoover now is from people clamoring to take his name off the FBI building.''

In a concluding chapter, Rowan urges blacks to ``get away from ceremony and memories and self-congratulations for deeds done a quarter century ago and deal with the problems of today.'' He applauds Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey for supporting black education but excoriates many other blacks in the entertainment industry who are ``takers, but rarely givers.'' He laments the Federal Bureau of Prisons spending $51,340 per bed to house 64,000 new inmates. ``Can you imagine the federal government spending $51,340 per ghetto youngster...? America must put its money into trained intelligence - and hope.''

A reader could criticize this book on relatively minor points. One wishes Rowan would have commented on the special challenges of moving between the worlds of government service and journalism while maintaining a sense of integrity in each role. And his tendency to chart each step of his progress by the salary attained - while understandable in a black American rising from abject poverty to hitherto unattained posts for someone of his race - does himself a disservice.

Nonetheless, this account of how Rowan brought his own ``trained intelligence'' to bear in the service of his country and his readers makes for a memorable memoir.

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