Only in America


November 16, 1990|By James J. Kilpatrick

CHARLESTON, SOUTH. CAROLINA. — CARL ROWAN'S autobiography came in the mail the other day. It is a cracking good book, destined for best-seller ranking, and it tells a story that would have enchanted Harry Golden.

Golden, you may recall, was the editor, publisher and sole proprietor of the Carolina Israelite. He delighted in tales of success that could happen ''only in America.'' Carl Rowan's life provides an inspiring example of what Harry Golden wrote about.

It is impossible, Carl remarks, for Americans under the age of 50 to understand the world into which he was born in 1925. This was the world of McMinnville, Tennessee, a ''brutally racist community,'' but no more racist, perhaps, than the whole of the segregated South at that time. Carl and his family knew the kind of poverty that is thankfully rare today.

In their rat-infested house ''we had not a single clock or watch.'' No electricity. No running water. No telephone. No radio. ''Toilet paper was a luxury we did not know when second-hand newspapers were good enough for our outhouse.'' The Rowan children survived on navy beans, black-eyed peas, chitlins and ''Hoover's ham.'' They learned to rub their mattress buttons with kerosene, the better to kill the bedbugs. Carl stole lumps of coal to keep their tiny house warm.

Out of that milieu emerged a black boy who would go on to become a naval officer, a brilliant reporter and a member of the Foreign Service during the Kennedy administration. Under Lyndon Johnson he became ambassador to Finland, then director of the U.S. Information Agency. He had a chair at Cabinet meetings. He moved easily between leaders of the black community and top people in the white power structure. When he left government, it was to become one of the most successful columnists in the pundit business.

At every step along the way, Carl challenged the old ways of racial segregation. He has titled his life story ''Breaking Barriers,'' and break them he did -- at public restaurants, private clubs and bastions of government tradition. Nominated for membership in Washington's exclusive Cosmos Club, he was rejected by the racist membership committee of that day. Carl took the decision with devastating grace:

''It is my understanding that this is Washington's club of intellectuals. If it is the intellectual judgment of the committee that I do not merit membership, I can do no more than note this judgment and wish the club well.''

Carl's story is rich in anecdotal material. He traveled around the world with Lyndon Johnson and survived the experience with his sense of humor intact. He provides the best brief summation of Johnson's mercurial character that I have seen anywhere:

''Lyndon Baines Johnson was egocentric, domineering, imperious, mean, insecure, cornpone, unfaithful, crude. He was also generous, brave, a fighter for the little guy, loyal to friends and causes -- and damned effective.''

In other vignettes he perfectly captures the fuzziness of Adlai Stevenson, with whom he served at the United Nations: ''He was one of the most indecisive men I have ever met in high office.'' He recalls Sen. Hubert Humphrey and Secretary of State Dean Rusk. In a bitter chapter he assails the evil character of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and he pulls together the circumstantial evidence suggesting that Hoover set up Martin Luther King Jr. for assassination.

Unlike most autobiographies, which have the formal feeling of a studio portrait, Carl's book is shirt-sleeve stuff. Some public figures write with pens that have been dipped in library paste. Carl dips his pen in etching acid. It is not a pretty picture of Washington's Mayor Marion Barry that emerges.

Carl's pool-cue assaults sometimes carry him away. He charges flatly that Richard Nixon ''ordered'' the Watergate burglary. This is nonsense. Mr. Nixon covered up, stonewalled, hunkered down and lied about Watergate, but the cockamamie break-in was the brainchild of Gordon Liddy and a spineless John Mitchell.

Carl's judgment of Ronald Reagan also strikes me as unfair. Most of the blame he assigns to Mr. Reagan was abundantly shared by Congress -- for example, the reduction in funds for public education -- and whatever may be said about Mr. Reagan's character, there is not a racist bone in his body.

''Breaking Barriers'' comes from Little, Brown. In the sometimes stuffy world of high-level memoirs, it is a keen and cutting breeze. As Harry Golden used to say, enjoy!

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