01/20/1992 at 01:00 AM EST
by Charles V. Hamilton
Both cad and crusader, Powell was the leading African-American politician of the mid-20th century. Brazenly controversial, he represented Harlem in Congress from 1944 to 1967 in a style that was arrogant, opportunistic and utterly charismatic.
Powell could mesmerize huge audiences; he could toss off quips and establish hip slogans (his "Keep the faith, baby" rang through the '60s). He was a man of endless contradictions. A Democrat, he endorsed Eisenhower in 1956 (he claimed he'd be good for civil rights) and got away with it. He vigorously championed equality yet was absent from the floor when the big civil rights bills of his time came to a vote. He denounced racism wherever he detected it—and, long before Clarence Thomas and Marion Barry, deflected criticism of his behavior by accusing his accusers of racism.
Hamilton, professor of government at Columbia University, has definitively chronicled Powell's outlandish and instructive life. Born in 1908, Powell took over his father's pulpit at Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church at age 29. Four years later, in 1941, he became the first African-American elected to the New York City Council. In Congress he eventually became the first black chairman of a major committee, on education and labor.
Despite Powell's absenteeism (he often preferred fishing in Bimini, where he had a house), philandering and payroll padding, his constituents kept re-electing him. Years before Muhammad Ali, Powell won hearts with his bravado and defiance. But his huge ego led him to feud with Martin Luther King Jr. and many other black leaders. Ousted from Congress in 1967 in a politically motivated ethics investigation, he was re-elected but finally defeated in a 1970 primary. Powell died of cancer less than two years later.
Hamilton has written a serious biography about a complex man; it is deftly detached in its stance, and is neither an indictment nor a laudatory wreath, but an engrossing and pertinent piece of historical perspective. (Atheneum, $24.95)