Advanced Search
Carl Rowan
Carl Rowan
Breaking Barriers: A Memoi
ISBN: 0316759775
Breaking Barriers: A Memoi
Carl Rowan's book, "Breaking Barriers," relates his personal experiences with the changing face of race relations during the past 50 years. He describes barriers in the press, military, and government. He gives his opinion on political leaders and what they have done to help or hinder race relations. Mr. Rowan was one of the first black officers in the U.S. Navy. He has served as a journalist, a State Department spokesperson, an ambassador to Finland, and the head of the U.S. Information Agency.
Breaking Barriers: A Memoi
Program Air Date: February 3, 1991

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Carl T. ROWAN, author of the new book "Breaking Barriers," in your foreword you quote, "'There is no history, only biography.'" You said that you had been emboldened by that comment, but discouraged by a friend's observation that "there are no autobiographies, only lies." Why did you use that?
CARL ROWAN, AUTHOR, "BREAKING BARRIERS: A MEMOIR": Well, I think a lot of people assume that autobiographies are self-serving, as they are, including mine, but that also people aren't going to be candid and tell you the truth about a lot of things. One of the things I think about "Breaking Barriers" is that I've been a lot more candid than most people ever dreamed I'd be.
LAMB: Which comment or chapter in this book was the hardest for you to write?
ROWAN: Oh, the one about the gun incident because that was a rather traumatic portion of our lives. My wife still won't read the chapter about the gun episode because she was influenced greatly, I think, by the calls coming in saying somebody'd put a contract on my life for six months and the death threats to her and some guy going over buying funeral plots in our names and sending the bills to our house and so forth. So, I think she'd just as soon put that period of our lives way in the past, but I know that it's on people's minds, and a lot of people were saying, "Well, will he write about that?" and of course I did.
LAMB: One more time, tell us the story.
ROWAN: Well, the story is that I was at 2 a.m. lying in my bed asleep when I was awakened by what I thought was for sure somebody tampering with the bedroom window trying to get in. Then I heard the screams out in the back of my yard from a young woman, and realized it was on my property. I ran in my nightshirt to the far corner of the house and saw a woman with big breasts flopping as she ran from a man, and I could see cigarettes lighting up. I knew that the youngsters were people who'd scaled my fence before to hold parties with cigarettes laced with PCP and were out there again. I called the police and later remembered that after one death threat, my son, a former FBI agent, had come and sat there all night and finally left his exempt-from-registration revolver at the house. I went in and got it after it took so long for the police to arrive.

When they arrived, I tried to sneak out to a back gate to open it so the cops could come in when I was confronted in the darkness by a 6-foot-4, 19-year-old who was puffing on some kind of cigarette. He tried to run into a door that I had left open and didn't heed my call to stop and my warning that I had a gun. He lunged at me, and I shot him in the wrist. Of course, the U.S. attorney saw where it occurred; nowhere near a swimming pool or a Jacuzzi, but at the door to my house. The U.S. attorney said forget it, but Marion Barry had some other ideas, particularly because I had criticized corruption in his administration and his personal behavior, and this was his chance to get even.
LAMB: One of the issues, of course, was that it was an unregistered gun.
ROWAN: Yes, that's what the city contended, but officers leaving the FBI and the D.C. police force had never registered their guns, and they'd taken them home. When my son went to the gun control office and asked them if he legally could leave that revolver at my house, they told him yes. That's why the jury would not convict.
LAMB: You got a lot of -- I don't know what you'd call it -- static from the conservatives for your ...
ROWAN: And some liberals. Yes, from the conservatives. National Rifle Association people despised me as one of their harshest critics and an advocate of gun control. They tried to have a field day. They even got Senator Simms to give me an honorary membership in the NRA. Of course, there are liberals who believe that you should never have or use a gun, and they wrote articles that I should have put shards of glass on top of the fence around my yard and barbed wire and that kind of stuff, or that I should have tangled with this young man with a baseball bat. Well, that sounds easy if you aren't the one in the darkness and you don't know whether he's got the inhuman strength that PCP bestows. So, there was a lot of second-guessing by people who did not face the agony of that moment's decision.
LAMB: Do you have any second thoughts about gun control because of this?
ROWAN: No. I still think we ought to have a national gun control law, and that's they only thing that will work. The D.C. government can claim it's got the toughest gun control law in the nation, but that's a joke because people here can and do drive across the bridge into Virginia, buy themselves any kind of gun they want including AK-47s and come back into the District and continue this record of more than one homicide a day.
LAMB: You've got an autobiography here that has the title "Breaking Barriers." What does that mean?
ROWAN: Well, at first the working title for that book was "You Can't Get Here From There," referring to my boyhood in McMinnville, Tennessee. But that was a little long, and I thought I'd make it match what my life was -- a series of lucky or maybe not lucky experiences in which I was doing things they'd never let blacks do before. But "breaking barriers" also refers to this country trying to find its heart and soul, and of people like Harry Truman, Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson, Eleanor Roosevelt helping to knock down the barriers that no one man -- no one black man -- could knock down alone.
LAMB: Do you still run into prejudice?
ROWAN: Oh, yes. It exists. Always will. There always be a great pool of people out there to whom any black person is just another nigger, no matter what their achievements. You recall just before his death, Ralph Bunche ran into discrimination trying to buy a house in New York. I get every day maybe 10 or 12 letters filled with racial hostility and hatred, but I just take it for granted.
LAMB: Do you have any idea -- and I'm sure you've thought about this -- where it comes from?
ROWAN: Well, it comes out of some deep-seated fears that a lot of people have -- fear that somehow blacks are going to get their job or get some promotion that they think they ought to have. Or sexual fears. I mean, the old notions that they're protecting Southern white womanhood or just white womanhood have not vanished in this country, and that's the source of a lot of bigotry. But also I think we're seeing a resurgence of bigotry now because we've had some top political leaders who've made racial hostility fashionable again. Ronald Reagan sent out a message that a lot of people with a mentality of a David Duke understood quite clearly.
LAMB: I've got the big article that was done on you in the Washington Post -- a big picture in the "Style" page -- by Paul Hendrickson -- and he starts off by saying, "Strip it all away -- the second home in Boca, the glossy black Lincoln Town Car, the seat in Jack Kent Cook's box at RFK, the membership in the Gridiron Club -- membership, nothing; he was past president -- the chair on the Gannett board, the suite of offices and the staff of four at Sutton Place, the satellite dish, the backyard swimming pool and the Jacuzzi," and on and on; "the $20,000 speeches ...." What do you think when you have somebody start out an article on you like that?
ROWAN: Well, first I ask what a lot of people have asked me and said in letters: what's the relevance of this? Is it that you're not supposed to have these kinds of things? It's like the letter I got after the gun incident from a white man who said, "What's a nigger doing with a swimming pool and a Jacuzzi anyhow?" But then I came to understand that I think what Hendrickson was doing was using what we call parallelism. He wanted to tell them all of the trappings of riches around me so that he'd have great impact when he got around to telling them how poor I used to be.
LAMB: Why have you made it? Or do you think in your own mind, have you made it?
ROWAN: Oh, I don't think anybody ought to claim that he's made it all the way because there are still challenges out there and things that I want to do. But I suppose in the normal context of American life when you put it against the background of the way I grew up, I've made it. But the "why" is a very complicated story. There was a lot of encouragement. It makes a difference to have someone pat you on the head when you're 8 years old and have spelled all your words right and done your math right. To have your mother say, "There can't be anybody in that school any smarter than you are." That's the beginning of self-esteem, and without it, people don't achieve much. Sometimes self- esteem gets confused with ego, but I say you show me a man who has no ego and I'll show you a man who has no reason to have an ego. Self-esteem, yes. I wish millions of young kids could get that today, but they don't have the home environment or setting where that's possible. Beyond that, you've got to have some very big breaks along the way. I mean, there's something extraordinary about finding a $20 bill on the day that you're dropping out of college because you don't have the $20 for the next quarter's tuition. I don't know whether someone was looking over me or what, but to pass a weedy area and have something say to you, "One of those wads you just passed in the weeds was not a bus transfer," and go back and find it's a $20 bill was a profound event in itself. But to have the Navy decide just three or so days later that for the first time in this nation's history a black kid could take an exam and try to become a Navy officer was a series of coincidences that were profound.
LAMB: How did it happen?
ROWAN: I don't know how it happened. It just happened, and of course it changed my life greatly.
LAMB: Where did you go in the Navy?
ROWAN: I first was a V-12 student in Topeka, Kansas, which ironically became the scene of the great Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case. Then I went to V-12 at Oberlin College for a semester and to midshipman's school at Fort Schuyler in the Bronx, and I served on a couple of fleet tankers in the North Atlantic carrying high-octane gasoline to refuel aircraft carriers.
LAMB: Are you in touch with any of your colleagues from Oberlin College?
ROWAN: I hear from some of them every now and then, and in fact, I got a letter just two days ago from one of them who had bought and read the book.
LAMB: Why did you go to Oberlin?
ROWAN: Well, when I was at Washburn, I first was transferred to Northwestern, but Northwestern didn't want Negroes to stay in campus dormitories. So, the Navy had to retransfer me to Oberlin, and having been there as a V-12 student, after the war I went back to Oberlin to get a degree in math. Then I went on to journalism school at the University of Minnesota for post-graduate work.
LAMB: Why did you pick math?
ROWAN: Well, I tell people that I wanted to be sure I could count all the money I'd make as a newspaper man, but the truth is I had piled up so many hours of math and science in the Navy in midshipman's school that it was easier for me to take that degree in math and do post- graduate work in journalism than to start all over as a journalism student.
LAMB: You went to work for the Cowles publications and Minneapolis Star Tribune?
ROWAN: That's right.
LAMB: Why did you pick Minneapolis?
ROWAN: Well, I didn't pick Minneapolis specifically. It was just a case of figuring out where I was going to get a job. You remember, now, that in 1948, you could count on the finger of one hand the blacks working as full-fledged reporters for daily newspapers. I knew I couldn't go back south because there were absolutely no opportunities there, and my adviser said, "Well, you ought to start first here in Minneapolis." That's when I learned what affirmative action is all about. I went in and I took a battery of tests and the personnel woman said, "Well, we don't have anything. If anything opens up, we'll call you." I was angry. I walked out saying, "This is the same old run-around." I didn't know that the publisher John Cowles had said to Gideon Seymour, the editor, "I look out and I see a lily-white room of reporters. You will never convince me that in all these United States you can't find a black man or woman capable of being a reporter on my paper."

I didn't know that when I walked out of that personnel office the young woman picked up the phone and called Gideon Seymour, the editor, and said, "Mr. Seymour, one of them just came in." Well, by the time I'd taken the streetcar back to St. Paul, I had three calls from Gideon Seymour to come right back to Minneapolis. I went in, he interviewed me and said, "I can't hire you today because I've got a little problem with the Newspaper Guild, but if you can find something to do for a few weeks, you've got a job here." That's how I got my start -- because a publisher cared enough to light a fire under his editor. That's affirmative action.
LAMB: How long did you stay there?
ROWAN: I stayed there over 13 years, until New Year's Day of '61 when I got a call asking if I'd join the Kennedy adminstration, and in February of '61, I came to Washington.
LAMB: How did John Kennedy know about you?
ROWAN: I had come to Washington to do a series of articles on him and Richard Nixon. I never knew why he called me until I had the last appointment with him -- official -- before he went to Dallas. I said at the end of our discussions, "Mr. President, I've always wondered why you asked me to join your administration." He said, "Do you remember coming down to do that series of articles on Nixon and me?" I said, "Sure do." He said, "Well, Bobby and his intelligence agents had told me that John Cowles was going to endorse Nixon and that you were coming to do a hatchet job. But when I saw the articles I said, 'Damn, these are eminently fair,' and I never forgot your name." That's how I wound up in the U.S. government.
LAMB: What was your first job?
ROWAN: Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, and in that job I did a lot of briefing of newspaper men and publishers, a lot of speaking -- basically to tell the American people what Kennedy's foreign policy was and hopefully make them believe it was good. It wasn't always easy. In fact, it was impossible at some points because he took a lot of fire for his policy in the Congo at that particular time and had begun to take quite a bit of heat for his policies regarding Vietnam because he was sending over so-called advisers who were actually leading military units of the Vietnamese army. We were getting deeper and deeper into that war while Kennedy was President, which a lot of Americans did not know.
LAMB: You suggest in your book when you talk about that that he might not have been all that truthful with the American people.
ROWAN: No. Well, you know, it was certainly not a truth when you tell Americans that you're only sending over military advisers when you've got Americans who are really in a combat role already.
LAMB: Did you have trouble with that? Were you having difficulty representing him when he was doing that?
ROWAN: Well, yes. We had then one of the same fights and problems that we have today with regard to the Persian Gulf area. Most of the people in the Pentagon did not want military men to ride helicopters out with combat missions or to see the fighting. For one reason, because they would see that the degree of U.S. involvement was a lot deeper than the American people were being told. I had one of the biggest fights and squabbles that I ever got in. It was on a Saturday morning when I went to President Kennedy to object to a proposed policy to keep all newsmen away from the combat areas. I argued that our policy had to be maximum feasible cooperation, which he eventually approved. But there are people today who want to believe that we lost the war because the media told too much and television showed too much of the carnage and the American people lost the will to fight the Vietnam War. The rationale for censorship today in the Persian Gulf area, for keeping the media away from the battle areas, is that they want the American public to continue to support this war. They figure the less the people know. the greater they'll support the war, which is going to blow up in the adminstration's face one of these days.
LAMB: We'll get back to that in a moment or two. When did you first meet Lyndon Johnson?
ROWAN: I first met Lyndon Johnson, really, when -- for reasons I'll never know -- the White House asked me to accompany him on a trip around the world with particular emphasis on a visit to South Vietnam. I went to the first briefing session for that trip and got my first taste of Lyndon Johnson. I walked in and he's lashing the State Department officials, telling them they were all a bunch of little puppy dogs leaking on every fire hydrant they could find. Johnson was absolutely psychotic about leaks. I mean, he hated them with a passion. I listened to his lecture about how you can tell who leaked a particular story, and he said, "Sooner or later the guy who did the leak is going to show up in that guy's column," or, "That guy's got to write an article to pay him back, and if you just watch, I think you're going to see him write about old Chester Bowles because I think he leaked this business about my trip." I said, "Oh, boy, are we going to be in for this for the whole trip?" And, of course, we were.
LAMB: You say that Lyndon Johnson was three or four different kinds of people. You loved him and hated him.
ROWAN: Oh, there were several Lyndon Johnsons -- at least three. There was a Lyndon Johnson who was cornpone -- crude, vulgar and could be really mean, abusive of his staff members. But the same guy two hours later would be doing some of the nicest things for a staff member that he'd been abusing. Then you'd see the Lyndon Johnson get into a soliloquy about his vision of America and what he would like to do for the children of America in terms of education, in terms of protecting the nightgowns of little girls and the artificial eyes and the limbs that were being sold to people in a defective state. He wanted to protect the people against that. He had these great social visions of what we ought to do to ensure that old people had decent medical care and so forth.

This was a tremendously different Lyndon Johnson from the other one I've mentioned, and that's why I think if some insecurities and some macho tendencies had not gotten Johnson so deeply into the Vietnam War, he'd be ranked among the three or four greatest presidents in U.S. history. But that macho, I discovered then, is a powerful force that drives presidents to make what often can be dreadful decisions. You know, I used to sit in the cabinet and National Security Council meetings, and I still remember vividly Johnson coming in and giving his favorite little speech -- a soliloquy about the schoolyard bully. He said his grandpa had told him you never let the schoolyard bully chase you off the yard because if you do he'll chase you down the street and then he'll chase you onto your front porch and the next thing you know he's back in the bedroom raping your little sister. That was Johnson's rationale for doing what he was doing -- the bombing of North Vietnam. He thought that he was stopping Ho Chi Minh, the equivalent of the schoolyard bully.
LAMB: You write about how you stood up to him on a trip to Vietnam. Can you explain that?
ROWAN: Well, a lot of newsmen wrote a thousand articles about that in those days. You know, I hadn't asked to go on that trip. President Johnson asked me. I was not going to take the kind of verbal abuse that Johnson was accustomed to handing out. One day in Bangkok I simply had to walk up and tell him that I didn't play that game. If he was going to call me a bad name in front of newsmen, I'd have to speak of him in the same kind of language, and that if he'd wanted it, I'd take the next plane back to Washington. Well, he didn't want that because he didn't want to see any headlines about how I had abandoned the trip because of his verbal abuse.

We still had a few more fights, but I can tell you when Edward R. Morrow became ill and Johnson wanted someone to replace him, I was the guy he called to take over USIA [United States Information Agency] because I knew I'd won his respect by standing up to him. I just think that's the only way a man can operate like a man.
LAMB: Prior to this you were ambassador to Finland?
ROWAN: Finland, yes. Kennedy had sent me as ambassador to Finland. I was lying in bed late one night, having gone to a dinner at the Norwegian embassy when the phone rang and I heard this voice say, "Carl, come home. I need you." That's all I heard. No reason why or anything.
LAMB: And you were in Finland then.
ROWAN: Yes, I was in Helsinki, and I caught the next plane to Washington. Bill Moyers tipped me off that once Johnson got his ducks in line with the Southern Senators, he was going to name me head of USIA. And he worked assiduously to make sure that he had his ducks in line and that the Southern Senators did not vote against me.
LAMB: But you said that Bill Moyers ...
ROWAN: He tipped me.
LAMB: ... showed his own self in this thing because he wanted that job more than he wanted you to have it.
ROWAN: Well, that's what I was told by people in the White House, that Moyers really wanted that job. But he let that ambition pass and was very helpful to me. I was hiding out in the Madison Hotel here for days, incognito because Johnson didn't want anybody to know I was in town until he knew he had the votes. That's how he operated.
LAMB: You were the head of the USIA, but let me go back to the last year or two of Finland. Why did President Kennedy put you in that post?
ROWAN: Well, I wanted to leave the Kennedy administration. I'd had an offer of more money than I'd thought I'd ever make to come out and do a column for the Chicago Daily News and their syndicate. But first I talked to Ed Morrow and he said, "No, no, you can't quit. If you do there won't be a wet eye in the State Department." So I then picked up the phone and called President Kennedy who was in Florida and he said, "Oh, you just can't leave yet. I'll tell you, I've got a guy in Helsinki that I've been wanting to replace. Would you consider going there as ambassador?" I was at a reception on the top floor of the State Department. I called my office and asked my secretary to bring up the country paper on Finland and whatever else she could find so I could take it home. That night my wife and children sat up till the wee hours discussing the pros and cons of going to Finland, and we decided we'd do it. It was a marvelous experience.
LAMB: Did you take your kids with you?
ROWAN: I sure did. We had a great love affair with the people of Finland.
LAMB: This is a picture of you and your two sons?
ROWAN: Yes, I think that picture was taken when I was being sworn in prior to going to Finland.
LAMB: What was the reaction to Carl ROWAN showing up on the doorsteps of Finland?
ROWAN: Well, the Finns were very excited about it, but they couldn't hide their fascination with my color, my wife's color, the kids. In fact, the biggest magazine in Helsinki wrote a big article saying "the most colorful ambassador in Finland." But they soon realized that I was there to deal with some things more serious than my color, like trying to stop nuclear testing in the atmosphere so that children wouldn't have to drink milk with strontium 90 in it and so forth. I was pleased that Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey and the others were pushing this hard and that we were able to get the Finns aboard on that anti-testing agreement because that meant a lot of other countries in the world would follow Finland's leadership and come aboard.
LAMB: There's one humorous story about the dog.
ROWAN: Oh, well, you know, we had a little Italian greyhound, and we sent the dog ahead because you have trouble going through Britain without quarantining a dog. So this dog gets to Helsinki and when our plane lands, we see the dog in the arms of one of the women in the embassy. Well, somehow that dog smelled or realized that my wife, kids and I were stepping off that plane, leaped out of this woman's arms, ran across the tarmac, up the steps and into my older son's arms. Well, a thousand cameras, it seemed, were clicking and clacking, and the next day that was the most famous dog in Finland. Front page. Comet, Gomet, Comez -- they couldn't get the name right, but everybody knew that little Italian greyhound.
LAMB: What do you remember most about the Finns?
ROWAN: I remember the Finns as being just absolutely true in their word and their commitment. If they said they were going to do something, they did it. And this depended on whether I'm dealing with the Finnish military about something we wanted to do or whether I'm talking to someone in the civilian sector. I would notice that they were in many respects a shy people. We'd give a reception, and they'd come through the receiving line and whisper so lowly that you could hardly get their names. But one martini later -- very outgoing, slapping me on the back and so forth. They loved the fact that I'd go out and play golf with them or go bowling with them. In fact, I started a bowling league in the embassy. We got a lot of Finns involved in it and had a pretty tough team, in fact.
LAMB: What about the ambassadors -- a political ambassador versus a foreign service ambassador? Did you have any trouble with the foreign service because you were a political appointee?
ROWAN: No, I did not. I am one of those who would want to limit rather severely the number of political appointees. But I think most of the people knew that I wasn't political in the normal sense of the word. I hadn't campaigned for Kennedy or anybody and still never have. So, they looked at me as someone who was somewhere between a political appointee and a career guy because my previous years in journalism had been to a great degree in the international arena and doing things like covering the United Nations during the simultaneous crises they had over Hungary and the Suez. So, I think most of these people in the foreign service realized that I had some foreign policy credentials.
LAMB: Being director of the United States Information Agency, especially after Edward R. Morrow, must have been a tough act to follow.
ROWAN: Oh, it was indeed a tough act to follow, but there were some things that I felt I could do that hadn't been done before. You see, in those days, you couldn't get a USIA employee into a post as ambassador. The regular foreign service guys weren't too keen on that idea and I guess nobody had ever pushed it. But I'm proud of the fact that I pushed it and got President Johnson to go along with it, with the result that by the time I left USIA, several of our personnel -- former newspapermen -- were ambassadors in some pretty good posts.
LAMB: How long were you there?
ROWAN: I was there a year and nine months as I recall.
LAMB: What's the thing you're most proud of while you were there?
ROWAN: Well, that I kept that agency going and I kept it in the forefront of policymaking in this city, even though the policies wound up causing me to commit more of USIA's resources to the war in Vietnam than I would have wished. As I look back, I know that it was too much.
LAMB: What's the principal role of the USIA for the United States government in the world?
ROWAN: Well, the USIA's job is to do a number of things. It's to make people abroad understand what's going on in this society, what policies we are following and why we are following those policies. Secondly, it is to articulate the foreign policy of a president. For example, my biggest job was to try to tell the world why we were getting so deeply involved in a military conflict in Southeast Asia. Lyndon Johnson would say to me time after time, "Please tell them I want no wider war. All I want to do is bloody their noses a little bit so they'll leave their neighbors alone." Johnson would say that, but at every moment we were sinking deeper and deeper into the wider war that he said he didn't want, and that was not salable.

In fact, Johnson called me one day on what we called the flame-thrower -- that was a direct telephone from Johnson to my desk. The phone rang and he said, "I just got a call from a guy on Madison Avenue, and he says that you aren't selling my policies the way Madison Avenue would. They think it ought to be sold the way you sell soap." Well, a little smoke started coming out of my ears, and I got a little miffed. I said, "Mr. President," in so many words. I used some of Johnson's type language in this case. I said, "People buy soap because they want soap and they use soap and they need soap. You can't say that about a war. They don't want a war. They don't want our GIs over there messing around with their women. They don't want napalm bombs, and if any joker thinks he can sell that they way he can sell soap, you bring him on in here and give him the job."
LAMB: Do you see any parallels in the Vietnam situation and in the Persian Gulf situation?
ROWAN: Yes. I see the parallel of a macho drive by a President of the United States. George Bush sounded an awful lot like Lyndon Johnson to me when he was in August giving those speeches, "We're going to drive him out, and that's not a bluff. That's just the way it's going to be." I knew then, and said on television, the odds were 10-to-1 that we'd wind up in a war because Saddam Hussein had his macho image involved. We got in this game of chicken, and I knew there'd be a big collision somewhere down the highway. We got it, and I think we're seeing on a minor scale some of the same kind of miscalculation that we saw in Vietnam. In those days it was a light at the end of the tunnel that wasn't there. I don't think anybody in this administration at the outset believed that they were going to be able to hit Israel with those Scud missiles or that they'd be able to get some in or that they would put loose all of that petroleum in the Persian Gulf or that we would have to go into a lot longer war than a great many people thought. First we got euphoria and then we got the warnings of bad days to come, and as we talk I don't know where it's going to go.
LAMB: The book is called Breaking Barriers and our guest is Carl ROWAN and we're talking about his life. I want to go from the USIA to your next stop. What happened? Why did you leave USIA?
ROWAN: Well, I left USIA for a couple of reasons. One was that I had some very good offers to come out and do a column, but the basic, fundamental reason was that Johnson had asked me to do everything I could to get the Thais to allow us to put a powerful transmitter on Thai soil. Thanat Khoman, the foreign minister, said to me, "You know, I can talk frankly to you. This is a racial dispute that we've got going. My colleagues in Bangkok think that we're being used by the white folks in the United States. I'll put my prestige on the line and get approval of this transmitter if you make a promise that you will fly to Bangkok and join me in the presentation, because with you there, I will have disarmed them of their argument that this is a white man's scheme." Well, a few weeks went by and suddenly there is this urgent telegram from Thanat Khoman saying, "Issue at a crunch. Come to Bangkok immediately." I picked up the phone and called the White House and told Mac Bundy to tell the president that I was going over and try to nail down this deal for the transmitter. A little later I get a call saying the president didn't want me to go because while I was away somebody on the Hill might criticize USIA and he wanted me here where I could answer them. So I called over and I told Jack Valenti, "I want to come see the president immediately." So, I got in the car and went to the White House and I said, "Mr. President, I shook hands with the foreign minister of Thailand. I gave him my honor I'd be there, and if I've got to go back on my word, I can't work for you. I quit." I went back to USIA, and I got this call saying, "The president says if you want to go to Bangkok, go ahead." I said, "No, I won't do it because he says go this time, but I'll run into the same thing three months down the road. I quit." And that's what I did.
LAMB: Then what?
ROWAN: Then I went out and became a columnist for the Chicago Daily News and a syndicate.
LAMB: How many columns a week?
ROWAN: I was doing three columns a week and I started out with just over a hundred newspapers, which the syndicate said was an incredible number for a beginning columnist. I've been doing that column almost 26 years now.
LAMB: Who is your audience?
ROWAN: Oh, my audience is just the whole broad spectrum of America because I'm in newspapers from the West Coast to the East and from Idaho to Mississippi. You know, there were some years when no newspaper in Mississippi would buy my column and almost none in Georgia. But now I'm in Jackson, Mississippi, Jackson, Tennessee, Jackson, Mich.igan, and I'm in Macon, Georgia, where I once almost got killed, and Atlanta and Nashville near my old hometown in the Tennessean. One of my newspapers, or a couple of them that were there 26 years ago and still are -- the Dallas Morning News, very conservative; the Houston Post, not so conservative. So, I'm proud to say that from New York to Shreveport I've got that kind of audience.
LAMB: When did you first go on the Agronsky program?
ROWAN: The day it started 21 years ago. I am now the only full-time original member still on the show.
LAMB: And that program was originally just in Washington or was it seen across the United States?
ROWAN: I think when we started it was probably seen only on the Post-Newsweek stations -- four or five stations. When we started, we took the summer off thinking that nobody wanted to watch during the days of vacationing and going to beaches and so forth. But we soon learned that people wanted to see that show year around, and we began to do it year around. Then along came Watergate and we found people wanted to see not a half an hour but an hour. So we did some hour shows, and we did them live quite a number of times. In fact, we walked out having done the show live one Saturday night only to learn that the "Saturday Night Massacre" had just occurred. Right now we're doing the show live every Saturday night.
LAMB: Called "Inside Washington."
ROWAN: "Inside Washington." It's too risky, and, in fact, it might even be foolish, to try to tape that show the way things are changing.
LAMB: When did you first know that important people were watching that show?
ROWAN: Well, we learned early on that Presidents watched that show, and they all have. We have had calls from the office of, I think, just about every President asking if there is a way the President could come on and be a part of the panel. We've joked and they've said to the staff of the President, "Look, if he wants to come on and be an equal of the people who are sitting here we might consider it. But there isn't going to be any of this bowing and so forth to a president. So if he's prepared to have one of the panelists say, 'You're crazy as hell, Mr. President,' we might consider it." Well, told that, every one of them has said, "No, we don't think we want to do that."
LAMB: During those 21 years you've got -- I don't know how many we could name; programs like it -- the McLaughlin Group, the Capital Gang. This network is 24 hours of talk. Are you surprised, and do you still have the kind of audience you had in the early days?
ROWAN: We sure do. For example, these last few weeks we've had colossal audiences, and if you look at the ratings as a whole, we're still the king of the hill in terms of who's watching.
LAMB: Do you prepare for the shows?
ROWAN: Only in the sense of trying to do our work every day. I mean, I'm like everybody else -- a television junkie these days, wanting to know everything that's going on. I still read my seven newspapers every morning. We generally know exactly what is likely to be discussed, but there is no "you're going to say this, I'm going to say that" business. Gordon Peterson may say, "Well, this week it looks as though it's going to be all Persian Gulf," and I say, "Fine." Then we show up and do the show.
LAMB: Here is a picture from your book. I want you to tell me what it's all about.
ROWAN: Well, that's a picture of me at the Gridiron Dinner, the annual white-tie-and-tails event where a group of us journalists in the Gridiron Club make fun of the people who do the public's business and spend the public's money. That's a costume I wore for the opening song at that particular dinner. You know, I'm a pretty big ham and ever since I've been in the club, I've either done a little dance number or I've sung a little song or done something in the skits. I enjoy it immensely because I am a ham. I think if I hadn't been a newspaperman, I'd have wanted to be a singer, going to the Paramount a la Frank Sinatra.
LAMB: What is the Gridiron Club?
ROWAN: The Gridiron Club is a 105-year-old club of Washington journalists. It used to be almost entirely Washington bureau chiefs, but they broadened out a little bit and even let a couple of columnists in. Basically what we do is this big spring dinner, which is, I will say without boasting, the hardest ticket to get in this country because you can't buy a ticket to a Gridiron Dinner. You have to be invited by a member of the Gridiron Club.
LAMB: Here is a picture of you with President and Mrs. Reagan and your wife.
ROWAN: Yes, I was president of the Gridiron Club when that picture was taken.
LAMB: You had an interesting discussion. You sat right next to the president?
ROWAN: For six hours.
LAMB: Six hours?
ROWAN: Six hours! We had quite a discussion including his efforts to convince me that neither he nor Mrs. Reagan had a racist bone in their bodies because I'd written a lot of columns criticizing Ronald Reagan, and, of course, he knew it. We talked and he said, "You know, I should have talked to you seven years ago." I said, "Yes, you probably should have." Well, after the dinner he called and invited me to the White House for lunch where he again told me the story of how a black football player had shown up in his hometown and they wouldn't let him stay at the hotel and he'd taken him to his home. I said, "Well, Mr. President, you know I did not write a single column with any maliciousness or any venal intent, but it seems to me that you should have known that you were setting the civil rights movement back when you went eight years refusing to talk to the head of the NAACP or the head of the Urban League." He said, "Well, as soon as I got elected, they criticized me," and I said, "To hell with them, but I don't believe a President of all the people should do that. Would you explain to me why you opened your campaign for election to the Presidency by going to Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers had been murdered? And you go there to give a states' rights address?"

He looked me in the eyes and said, "I don't recall that I ever did that." That told me something about the President that some people accused of having selective amnesia. But I think he probably didn't remember that he went to Philadelphia, Miss., and did that. But he certainly set a different tone for the nation, and I think he made a lot of people think that bigotry was fashionable again.
LAMB: Was it tough sitting next to a president on what was supposed to be a fun evening and getting into a serious conversation like that?
ROWAN: Well, I expected it because you can't just do fun for six hours. I knew that this had to be on his mind, the columns I'd written about him. I was absolutely prepared for it. But one little interesting thing happened. After he realized the harshness of my criticism and what I still felt about his administration, he decided that he'd better cut that discussion off. The way he did it was to point down the head table to Colin Powell, who was then his national security adviser. He said, "You see that man down there?" I said, "Yes." He said, "That's one of the smartest men I ever met." I said, "I'm sure you're right, Mr. President." And from then on we talked about nothing but light-hearted things, or he began to tell me about how the Secret Service guys shoot from the hip. Unlike the FBI guys, they don't drop to their knees to shoot at someone. He said, "You know why that is?" I said, "No." He said, "These Secret Service guys stand up because that's how they can protect my body or the body of anybody else they're protecting. That means that those are some really special guys." I said, "I agree, Mr. President."
LAMB: Page 364, Jesse Jackson. "Jackson is the most ambitious, ubiquitous, irrepressible politician that I've ever met, but it is obvious for any politically aware American to see that Jackson scared the hell out of the millions of white people. He may run again, but he will never win the Democratic nomination or be elected president."
ROWAN: Well, I think that is absolutely true. You can say that to Jesse Jackson, but I don't think it makes an awful lot of difference. He does not want to believe these things. Jackson uses a rhetoric, for example, that a Doug Wilder of Virginia would not use. That's why a Doug Wilder made it clear that he wasn't eager to have Jackson come into Virginia to campaign in his behalf. Wilder knew he had to have a lot of white votes in order to win the governorship, and he was convinced that Jesse wasn't going to win those votes for him, that he would drive a lot of them away.
LAMB: "So, white people bear the greatest blame for what I and others see as the decline of America."
ROWAN: Yes. You know, there is a paranoia. There are two kinds of paranoia at loose in America today -- some white paranoia, black paranoia. Whites out there believing that the federal government, business and industry are giving all the goodies to blacks who don't deserve them. I ask, how can this be? If they'd only look at the fact that in this time, unemployment is 5.3 percent for white Americans. It's 13.2 percent for black Americans, 36 percent for black teenagers. If blacks have been getting all these favors and goodies, where the hell did they go? Now, on the other hand, we've got black paranoia that says any black official who's challenged, even though he may be a crook and they know it, any black official challenged is the victim of some kind of white conspiracy. And we just can't do that. We cannot afford to defend people who are not living up to their obligations to the children of American, the taxpayers of the jurisdictions over which they rule. So, we've got to deal with these two paranoias if we're ever going to get out of this situation where this country leaves every year a third of its youngsters so uneducated -- undereducated -- that they can't cope, let alone compete, with the Japanese, Germans, Taiwanese or whomever.
LAMB: The Persian Gulf. A lot of stories recently about the blacks being 28 percent of the military in the Persian Gulf but only 12 percent of the population. What's your reaction to that story?
ROWAN: Well, I can't get too excited about those figures for this reason: As I point out in Breaking Barriers, when I went into the Navy, the only thing a black person could be was a cook or a mess attendant. The Marine Corps would take absolutely no blacks. When blacks wanted to fly, they set up a Jim Crow unit down at Tuskegee. They had a couple of Jim Crow Army units. We fought like the devil for black people to have the right to go into the military, to go to West Point, to volunteer in this volunteer military. And now that they've done it out of disproportion to the population, I can't scream loudly -- except to point out why they're there in disproportion. That is because fair opportunities do not exist out in the civilian sector. All I can do is argue and ask the American people to be fair enough to ensure that when these folk come back from the Persian Gulf, they get a decent shot at the jobs and the opportunities that exist in civilian life.
LAMB: Polls also show blacks support this effort less than the whites.
ROWAN: Well, that's one reason. There is another reason. I think blacks see that whatever chances they might have had to get some special education for their children, some special early intervention in the lives of their youngsters -- the food programs that are needed, the health care that's needed -- is going up in the smoke of this war in the Persian Gulf. I mean, blacks look and they see one plane shot down -- $28 million gone, poof! They know that there isn't going to be any peace dividend and there isn't going to be any support for sustaining the social programs that are so important to millions of black people.
LAMB: We're about out of time. How is your book doing?
ROWAN: The book's doing great. We had a third printing before publication. I just came off the West Coast, and they sold a lot of books while I was out there. I keep watching to see when it's going to pop up on the bestseller list. Maybe this program will put it over the hump.
LAMB: Sixty-five years old.
ROWAN: Sixty-five years old, yes.
LAMB: Are you ready to hang it up?
ROWAN: Heck no! I just signed a new five-year contract to do a column. I still have a few years to go on my contract for "Inside Washington," and I have a new contract to do a radio show. "Retire" is not in my vocabulary.
LAMB: Carl ROWAN has been our guest for the last hour. This is what the book looks like. It's called "Breaking Barriers." Thank you very much.
ROWAN: It was a pleasure to be with you.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2004. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.