Carl Rowan: Columnist With Clout

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

IT'S a cold day in Boston, and the snow is being blown all around by the frigid wind, but it's warm inside the Mercedes, and Carl T. Rowan settles in the rear seat for a rolling interview on the way from one radio program to another. This is Mr. Rowan's book tour, the grueling, nationwide round of interviews that authors must endure, repeating the same just-perfect-for-your-lead anecdote, the same offhand but incisive political observation, the same pleasant chatter.

Rowan is promoting his memoir, called ``Breaking Barriers,'' and he is cheerful despite his task because he anticipates making an early flight to Detroit, the fruit of a smooth-running schedule. His beige ultrasuede jacket is crease-free, his blue trousers are crisp - but after all, Rowan is accustomed to both book tours and broadcasting his message. This book is his sixth, and each week he produces five radio commentaries and appears on a television political talkshow. That's on top of his thrice-weekly syndicated column.

He gracefully fields an early question about how he digests the media, describing his daily, crack-of-dawn intake of seven newspapers (The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Washington Times, The Baltimore Sun, The New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The Chicago Sun-Times). That day's Washington Post has a long profile of Rowan that contains the same list, but adds USA Today. Either way, he reads a lot of newspapers, and then watches the morning news shows.

``Often that generates the idea or the emotion to say, `You got to write about this subject....' Other times it may be that I've had lunch or dinner with someone the night before, and out of those conversations I get ideas for doing columns.''

Even a book tour can lead to column fodder. Rowan later writes of his New England sojourn: ``BOSTON - I sit here on a television show talking about a possible war against Iraq or the impact of a current recession, and I am reminded that these are not the things that cause me to worry most about America, 1991.''

``I spend hours,'' the column continues, ``agonizing over the fact that our big cities, and even our small towns, have become killing fields where young men especially are racking up record numbers of homicides.''

Ask Carl Rowan how he defines his role in the marketplace of punditry and he will say: ``A voice of the oppressed and of the poor, the voice for a new level of justice, a new measure of justice.'' But he knows that he's seen as a relic of a more liberal but discredited time, and that sense comes across in this same column, and not without bitterness. ``Fools who talk about `the fading liberal establishment' are so obtuse as to reject the wisdom of [Hubert] Humphrey about how to turn a 16-year-old possible burglar or drug-peddling murderer into an honored part of the American `establishment.'

``If only we had a Hubert Humphrey in power now,'' the piece concludes.

Rowan is particularly sensitive to accusations of being discredited. In 1988 he shot and injured a trespassing skinny-dipper who had taken a nocturnal swim in the pool at Rowan's home, and his critics howled hypocrisy: Rowan the liberal columnist stridently calls for gun control, but Rowan the homeowner defends his life and property with an unregistered handgun.

``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.''

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.''

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