A Congressman Candidly Defined

The picture of suavity: Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, photographed in 1964.
The picture of suavity: Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, photographed in 1964. (Copyright 2008 The Richard Avedon Foundation)
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By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Each day this week, a Washington Post writer examines a particular photo from the show "Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power " at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

It was always the bane of Rep. Adam Clayton Powell that his suave and rakish image distracted people from his accomplishments.

He got more than 60 major pieces of legislation passed for Lyndon Johnson during the president's War on Poverty. Powell chaired the powerful Education and Labor committees. With his clout and seniority, he anointed himself the first equal-opportunity employer in Washington and summoned dozens of highly qualified blacks to come work for him on legislation to raise the minimum wage, care for the elderly, support the arts, build schools. It was a long list, the kind of aggressive social legislation not seen since the days of Franklin Roosevelt.

Nothing pleased Powell more than poring over committee reports and studying proposed legislation. He chuckled about the arcane rules of the House because he mastered and loved them.

But he could never escape people's views of the flip side of his life: He drove a Jaguar. He dated a former beauty queen and had once been married to the beautiful jazz pianist Hazel Scott. He vacationed in European capitals.

Powell was eventually booted from Congress on ethics violations for putting his third wife on his office payroll and taking questionable "fact-finding" jaunts to foreign locales. He sued Congress and won in a landmark Supreme Court case. Basically the court found that by refusing to seat Powell, Congress had denied the citizens of Harlem their constitutional right to have their votes count.

There is nothing wrong with Avedon's photograph of Powell: It is clean and sharp. But it doesn't capture the power of the man. There should be more threat in it, more of the scent of fear. Powell battled Dixiecrat lawmakers for more than two decades. When he finally ascended to his committee chairmanships, he wielded a gavel like a judge, slamming it furiously atop the table at the conclusion of hearings.

He is certainly suave here but not the giant of Capitol Hill he once was. This is more the handsome Powell of Avedon's imagination than the skillful pol of reality.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company