Strip it all away, the second home in Boca; the glossy black Lincoln Town Car; the seat in Jack Kent Cooke's box at RFK; the membership in the Gridiron Club (membership nothing, he's a past president); the chair on the Gannett board; the suite of offices and staff of four at Sutton Place; the satellite dish; the back-yard swimming pool and Jacuzzi (more about these shortly, since for a brief moment they were the most famous swimming pool and Jacuzzi in America); the daily syndicated radio show; the newspaper column; the speeches and dog-and-pony shows with his fellow yakkers out on the convention and college lecture circuit (sometimes for as much as 20 grand a pop) the standing weekly gig at "Inside Washington" (he was there when the program was called "Agronsky & Company," when McLaughlin was a priest and "The Capital Gang" was a work force down at Lorton); the awards and trophies and plaques and plaudits that have come the way of Carl Thomas Rowan in four and a half decades of reportage and punditry and government service. Strip all this fame and wealth and peculiar brand of American talking-head celebrity away, and underneath you'd find -- what?

Well, many things no doubt, but not least an unknown and deprived and seemingly fated black kid from the banks of the Barren Forks River in Tennessee who was so poor he used to scrub his teeth with an index finger and a bar of Octagon laundry soap: They not only didn't have any toothpaste in that rattling raw-board house beside the L&N railroad tracks, they didn't have any toothbrushes.

Carl Rowan's father used to stack lumber for 25 cents an hour -- when he could get the work. Then he'd gamble and liquor himself at the riverbank, trying to ease the pain of his humiliation. The old man, his son guesses, probably never made more than $300 in a single year of his life. He died a few months ago in San Antonio at 94, still functionally illiterate, or nearly so, but with a mind alert, a back still proud.

Tom Rowan's son, who hasn't had to use his back much, is sitting on a long orange sofa in the airy confines of his one-story home in upper Northwest Washington. There's a big smile up. There are expensive paintings on the walls. There is a profusion of gizmo phones and fax machines and TVs and VCRs in this house. On the piano at the far side of the room is some sheet music -- the songs of Richard Rodgers, the tunes of Cannonball Adderly.

"He'd say to me things like, 'Boy, saw you on the TV the other day. Pretty gooood.' " When Carl Rowan imitates his daddy's voice, you suddenly get the Tennessee in him. The words are long and flat and languid, easy on the ears, the remotest cousin to that other voice, the opining one we know from the box, a voice that can seem at times peevish and pinched and pompous and pedagogical.

Of course, pomposity and punditry go together in Washington like the words "photo" and "opportunity." It's the capital TV talker's condition, and it wouldn't be fair to pin the affliction on Tom Rowan's son alone. No, the whole hot-eyed herd is afflicted with it.

But the man sitting here was talking about his dad, in rhythms laced pleasurably with Tennessee.

"I went out to see him, oh, I guess, six months before he died. 'Pops, I want to talk privately, let's go out by the swing,' I said. So we went out and I asked him if he needed anything. He pulled out of his pocket all these piles of pills. He held them in his hand and looked down at them and said, 'Boy, you see these here white ones? Well, they cost two dollars. And you see these here purple ones? Well, they cost three dollars. And these here green ones? They're the worst of all, four dollars for 'em. Yeah, boy, I could use some money, I reckon.' "

He's roaring. A few bucks for pills and the old man is blissful. Actually, Rowan gave his divorced parents (they're both dead now) a lot more money than that in their lives. Siblings too.

The revelation about Carl Rowan in the flesh is that he can roar -- often enough at himself. Given the television abstraction, this seems nearly shocking. Most shockingly Rowan can roar at the assaults and crudities and not-small racial barbarisms that never cease coming to his mailbox. In one sense, what else is there to do but laugh in the face of mindless bigotry? Yet it somehow seems more. There almost seems -- dare one say it? -- a genuine humility here.

"Now here's one I just got," he says, delighted. "It was the top of the pile of a whole batch of letters that just came in. See, my picture was on the cover of USA Weekend a couple weeks ago -- it was an excerpt from my new book and I was talking about how we can start to rid ourselves of racism in this country -- and somebody cut my face out, left the body off, just scissored out my face from the cover and pasted it on the top of this sheet of paper and then wrote underneath: '8-ball. You're black. Your face is round. And that's why we call you 8-ball.' Then after that the letter got nasty."

The belly has gone tremulous as jello mold.

Having barely caught his breath: "One of my all-time favorites was from a lady in Grand Rapids. She said, 'Dear Mr. Rowan. Life for you must be terrible -- being black and stupid at the same time.' " (The reply went like this: "Dear Madam. You obviously have only half my problem.")

In the spirit of the cowardly scissorman, another sociopath once pasted a photo of Rowan on an envelope and then underneath wrote two words: "Nigger, Washington, D.C."

A man whose mug is so recognizable that the postal workers of Washington know it by a thumb-size photo pounds his knee. This knee is sheathed in rich blue pin-stripe trousers. He seems to love telling this story. "And guess what? The thing got to me. 'Nigger, Washington, D.C.,' with my picture on it, and they delivered it to me. Now that's some mail service."

Perhaps these never-ending slings are a useful reminder we're all just a couple of steps up from lizards.

Carl Rowan's new book is "Breaking Barriers." It's the sixth, a memoir that seems all dressed for bestsellerdom (publication was just Monday, but according to Rowan the third printing is on order and the second is already in the warehouse). There are some highly controversial things in it, and some terribly moving things in it, and also a whole hay-wagon-full of grandiose, inflated, almost embarrassing things in it. There have been some early good reviews, but David Garrow, for one -- he's Martin Luther King Jr.'s Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer -- panned the book bad Sunday in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Wrong on many of the historical facts about King, asserted Garrow. Additionally, he was put off by Rowan's "overwhelming sense of self-importance."

I had received at least 10,000 favorable letters about my articles in the Minneapolis Tribune... . (Page 152.)

But before I could accept plaudits for 'Jim Crow's Last Stand' I had another honor to accept. On Jan. 2, 1954, the United States Junior Chamber of Commerce announced that I was one of America's Ten Outstanding Young Men of 1953. (Page 119.)

I had now won a coveted Sigma Delta Chi medallion three years in succession, something no other journalist ever had done. (Page 131.)

That retire-the-trophy Sigma Delta Chi award was in 1956 for a series called "This Is India." In those days Rowan was no talking head in a Washington TV studio, he was a ground-breaking, globe-trotting newsprint reporter out of Minneapolis who kept proving to his editors over and over his uncanny ability to land at the right story at the right moment: the Montgomery bus boycott; the march on Selma; the crisis in the Suez Canal; the Hungarian uprising. That kind of parachuting-in ability is a crucial mix of serendipity and instinct, not to say the largess of a publisher's budget. The very best journalists always have it. Call it luck based on desire: When you need something to happen, it does, and you're there, or on the way.

Rowan was one of the earliest there, telling white America what it felt like to be black in the mid-20th century. But just as much, he was a standard-bearer for his own race.

Luck based on desire: He once went to a picnic at Hyde Park with Eleanor Roosevelt -- and ended up staying 13 days. "I'd ridden up on the train with her," he says, "and at the end of the day I said I guess I must be going, and she said, 'Why, we aren't even close to being finished talking.' So she got in her convertible -- a DeSoto, I think -- and went and bought me pajamas and a swimming suit."

This is the same Carl Rowan who got through the Depression eating water pies and rabbit six ways to Sunday. A water pie is just what the name implies: sugar, water, a hint of butter inside a trace of crust. Carl's mom was a whiz at making them. And the rabbit, the rabbit. Once, after her son had become Mr. Capital Big (in more senses than one), Carl walked into the Sans Souci and was told by the maitre d' that civet de lapin was the specialty du jour. Civet de lapin is just a damn rabbit by another name to a Depression kid from Tennessee. Rowan ate something else.

This is the same Carl Rowan who, upon being rejected for membership in the Cosmos Club by its racist selection committee, replied devastatingly: "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."

This is the same Carl Rowan who can write eloquently about the threatened rescinding of affirmative action scholarships: "It is whether we are going to accept a new form of slavery in America -- albeit where the chains of bondage are invisible. Common sense ought to tell all of us that when the majority gets a minority down, and makes laws and 'rulings' that ensure the minority can never get up, then the members of that minority become a permanent underclass -- the slaves without physical shackles."

This is the same Carl Rowan who can lean forward on a sofa in upper Northwest and say with the flame jumping in his belly yet: "I am a crusader for racial justice, and I will be to the day I die."

The problem with reading Carl Rowan's new book -- no less than trying to read Carl Rowan's life -- is that something is always getting in the way of something else. It's the tension between all the admirable -- no, inspiring -- things a man has stood and fought for, and his apparently relentless concomitant need to tell you of them in ways that don't flatter him. What you have to do in reading this sort of life and this sort of book is work at stripping away, ferreting out, peeling back.

Facts and Items

He is 65 years old. He walks with a heavy plod and his speech is sometimes like that too. He tends to rub one hand with the other. He wears his pants high up around his stomach, in the way of grandfathers dressed formally for church. His slicked thinning hair is the handsome color of old pewter. He's got on a silver tie clasp, French cuffs with gold links. The elegant blue hose seem to be stretching to his kneecaps.

He has three grown children. One of them, Carl Jr., lives two blocks away. The crayon artwork of his grandkids adorns the downstairs bathroom.

He's been married to the same woman, Viv, for 40 years. They love to sing. "If we give a party here, there's always singing around the piano," he says without a fear of sounding corny. Life with father.

The miracle, of course, is that he ever got out of McMinnville, Tenn. You'd have to read the book, though maybe you could reduce the miracle to this: World War II came along at precisely the right time for Rowan. At 19 he was one of the first 20 black Navy officers in American history. After that it was Oberlin College, and then it was the Minneapolis Tribune, and then it was history, not least his own.

Every day now, the old Navy officer is up by 5:30 or 6, going through the papers, getting the sunrise news from television. He just signed a new five-year contract with his syndicate, another with his home paper, the Chicago Sun-Times. He's not close to quitting. "I want to work, I want to be part of these things," he says.

Esteem -- and a Shot In the Dark Gordon Peterson, respected host of "Inside Washington": "He's one of the bravest men I know. He has a great inner courage. I find him to be a spiritual person -- by that I don't mean religious. I mean a man of deep principle. At his core is justice, certainly and maybe foremost racial justice, but I wouldn't define him that narrowly. The absence of resentment in the man is remarkable. I had no idea about his childhood until I read the book."

James J. Kilpatrick, conservative prophet: "I'm genuinely fond of Carl. We disagree but we're never disagreeable. We debated affirmative action not long ago. He's for it, I'm not... . Drank a lot of whiskey with him. Well, he drinks gin, I drink Jack Daniels ... You see, you have to live with your opponents. No, I don't remember a time when we've ever disagreed on something to the extent it carried over afterwards. If you're looking for something, I just wish he'd quit saying, 'The simple fact is.' Every time Carl says that, I cringe. He works as hard as anybody in the business."

"Seven a day," Rowan is saying. He means newspapers. That's how many he reads. "It works like this. The Post and the New York Times come here to the house. At some point one of my wife's -- shall we say -- duties is to go up the street and get me the Washington Times, the New York Post, the Baltimore Sun, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal. Then a little later in the morning the Chicago Sun-Times has the paper delivered here. I think that's eight, in fact, isn't it?"

His column appears in the Sun-Times on Sundays, Wednesdays, Fridays. A fact that may surprise: Rowan is syndicated to only about 90 papers, domestic and international. (He refuses to give out the current number to an interviewer; a source at King Features later provides it.) By comparison, George Will has about 450 papers. Two weeks ago, on Page 1 of The Washington Post Book World, a reviewer spoke of the TV image of the man as "a dyspeptic member of the fading liberal establishment." For all his prominence and insideness, Carl Rowan also seems a man on the wrong side of the ideological power curve. If so, it's sure disguised well.

Here's something Carl Rowan can't disguise very well: his continuing bitterness over what happened at the rear of his house about 2 a.m. on June 14, 1988. In the time it took to fire off a handgun in a moment of panic, a man's entire career seemed to be left hanging in the balance. Forty years of work going down the tubes for this? You can read all about it in a chapter called "The Shot Heard Round My World." The Great Late Night Swimming Pool Pistola Incident, of course.

"I had learned, the painful way, about the dishonesty, the irresponsibility, that permeates my own profession," he writes. "And 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's got his considerable point, of course. It does seem as if the world, not least the journalistic world, got a bit too much delicious enjoyment out of someone else's misfortune. Was it the seeming hypocrisy of a talking-head liberal caught with his gun-control policy down?

His voice is trembling. "Well, yes, I found all that irritating," he is saying. "And my wife is outraged. She won't even look at that chapter. And it is a kind of bitter irony of life to think I could be lying in my bed over there" -- he is pointing vaguely toward a summer night in the middle distance of his memory, and the words are now rushing -- "and somebody is trespassing on my property, and, and, what happens, well, I wind up the villain, the big story... . And then too of course you have this situation of espousing a national gun control policy -- which I still espouse by the way -- and yet having a gun in my house and being faced with the discovery that I had no other choice but to react. Oh, they'll be saying 'hypocrite' to the end of my life."

Rowan continues to maintain the gun he used that night was exempt from registration because it was owned by his son, who used to work for the FBI. That's not how the D.C. court system saw it. Of course, Rowan knew how to use a gun: In fact, he was a crack shot in the Navy, and he used to target-shoot with his children in back fields in Minnesota.

In the fall of 1988 Carl Rowan was tried for violation of the District of Columbia's gun control law. He had shot in the wrist an 18-year-old resident of Chevy Chase named Ben Smith, who had gone with his girlfriend for an uninvited swim in Rowan's pool. The trial ended in a hung jury split 9 to 3 for acquittal. Afterward the city government abandoned further prosecution.

"People just have no idea how upset and pained and aggravated we were by this whole thing," he says. "There were days we got 200 phone calls. And then at night they'd start all over. Oh God, we hardly got any sleep. It was just terrible. Somebody went out and bought funeral plots and sent me the bills. That was supposed to be a joke... . It's just like that bull {Pat} Buchanan wrote -- that I shot this poor little skinny-dipper when he was dripping wet in his underpants, that I wordlessly shot him and then ran back into my house to hide. That's nothing like the facts. We were far from the swimming pool. We were right at the door to my house. I told the lecture people never again would I ever be on the same platform with Buchanan. I haven't been, either. So, yes, that's when I get mad."

Does he think now he might have overreacted that night?

"No, I don't. When your door is open and a guy is coming in in almost pitch darkness, and he's knocking over a light, and he's running, and you're warning him three times to stop, I don't think I overreacted."

Ben Smith denied the allegation he was trying to enter Rowan's house. He and Laura Bachman of Bethesda were charged with unlawful entry, a misdemeanor, and the U.S. attorney's office agreed to drop charges in exchange for 40 hours of community service.

A thickset man is working to get up from the sofa. "Perhaps we should have a look at the landscape," he says.

He paces it all off for a visitor, in detail, an engraved night, going over it one more time.

From Page 341 of "Barriers": "Meanwhile the media continued to hold stakeouts at our home. I asked my wife, 'Where were the sons of bitches in April and May when I was raising over $208,000 for scholarships for black high school seniors and needed some publicity?' "

A Shocker

Publicity. The most talked-about material in "Barriers" is Rowan's discussion of whether Martin Luther King might have engaged in a homosexual relationship with Ralph Abernathy. In outlining an FBI smear campaign on King, Rowan describes a conversation he had in 1964 with New York Rep. John Rooney. Allegedly, J. Edgar Hoover had played for Rooney's House oversight committee a surveillance tape on which King invited a man to come across the room and have oral sex with him. That man was supposed to be Abernathy.

Rooney recounted the contents of the secret tape for Rowan in '64, and Rowan here reveals, in the most explicit language, what King allegedly said. The tapes themselves are sealed in the National Archives until 2027. Rowan says in the book that in discussing it with Rooney he suggested the possibility that King wasn't serious. It could have been just braggadocio party talk, Rowan says he replied to the congressman. David Garrow himself, who has known about the allegations for 20 years, has said the truth just can't be known right now -- and thus he would have preferred leaving the episode unaired.

Why put this in the book? "I thought about it," he says. "But my first view is, in the book I'm a reporter. A chronicler of history, really. And it is not my job to protect anybody, not least or even Martin Luther King. But anyway this chapter is not really about whether there was an alleged homosexual relationship between King and Abernathy. It's about the abuses of power of the FBI... . I put it in because I wanted the full measure of understanding. It shows the kind of man Hoover was, going around the country calling them perverts. I was prepared, and am, to take criticism. This is a delicate kind of judgment you have to make when you're telling this kind of story."

An hour later Carl T. Rowan is kindly motoring his interviewer back downtown. He's going that way, he says, so why not? He has a luncheon today with the journalistic power elite at "the Statler Hilton," which is the musty name for the Capital Hilton. It's a Gridiron luncheon.

"Ten to one we're going to war," he says, lurching the Town Car down Connecticut Avenue. He usually takes Rock Creek Park, but there are barriers up in the park today. He's not used to all this stop-and-go.

His gold wristwatch is bouncing dreary midday winter light.

"I think we've given 173 youngsters over $800,000 in scholarships since I founded Project Excellence three years ago," he says. "We have had some youngsters at these dinners who've just staggered people."

At the hotel a doorman in a graycoat jumps forth to meet him. "Afternoon, Mr. Rowan, afternoon, so nice to see you. Say, have you switched religions? Weren't you a Chrysler?"

An unstilled voice of liberalism hands over the keys. "Got to change with the times, got to change with the times."