1946 was a year of Republican comeback from over a decade of Democratic dominance. This was not so in the portion of Oklahoma known as “Little Dixie”, an area of Oklahoma that is culturally and politically in tune with the South. The election of 38-year-old Carl Bert Albert (1908-2000) turned politics the other way. His predecessor, Paul Stewart, was a conservative Democrat who would have been more sympathetic to the 80th Congress had he not had to retire due to poor health. Albert’s first election bid is his most difficult one as some Oklahoma Democrats were suspicious of him for being a graduate of Oxford, but he was able to capitalize enough on his humble roots along with the slogan, “From a Cabin in the Cotton to Congress” (Sloan). Indeed, winning election seemed destiny for him; as a six-year-old boy in Bugtussle, Congressman Charles D. Carter visited his elementary school and told the class that any of the children could grow up and become the district’s representative. Albert stated that ever since, “…everything I did was calculated to being elected to Congress” (The Norman Transcript).
The Early Years
Albert is for the most part loyal to Truman, but he votes to override his veto of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 and supports anti-subversive legislation. He proves largely progressive on economic issues and is against civil rights. In 1947, Albert voted against banning the poll tax and indeed his first vote favorable to civil rights would not occur until the Eisenhower Administration. Albert has some notable achievements in his first eight years that catch the eye of Speaker Rayburn. Albert’s career is helped by a few factors. For one, his district is next to that of Texas’ Sam Rayburn, Speaker of the House. Thus, the interests of their districts are similar, and they befriend each other and have regular discussions in Rayburn’s office. For another, Albert is a studious legislator who wins several projects for his district and for “Mr. Sam” this mattered a great deal. Rayburn sees a lot of potential in the young Albert and in 1955 he gets him elected majority whip, the number three position in the House.
Moving On Up
At 5’4” he becomes known as the “Little Giant from Little Dixie”. In 1957, Albert casts his first vote for civil rights, on the watered-down Senate version of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. He had opposed stronger legislation in the House that year and in 1956. At the end of the 85th Congress he is still the least friendly Oklahoman to civil rights, however, being the only one to oppose funding the Civil Rights Commission in 1958. Although Albert votes for the Civil Rights Act of 1960, he opposes the McCulloch-Celler Amendment strengthening the bill. As a whip, he has a special skill for taking the pulse of the House. As Time Magazine (1962) noted, “Last year, when the White House developed a bad case of jitters over the chances of the depressed areas bill, and began to talk of compromises, Albert surveyed the situation and reported that the bill could be passed without major changes. It was. But when Albert told Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman that the Administration’s farm program would have to be rewritten to get through the House, Freeman ignored the advice and suffered a humiliating House defeat” (2).
After Rayburn’s death in 1961 and McCormack’s ascendency to House speaker, Albert moves up to majority leader, a post in which he continued to push JFK’s New Frontier legislation. In 1964, he casts a vote that proves that although he is from “Little Dixie” and was raised like someone from there born in 1908 would be, he is not bound by his background: he votes for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Of the six representatives from Oklahoma, three voted against the bill. Albert’s record from then on would be solidly favorable to civil rights legislation. He supports Great Society legislation, including a repeal of the “right-to-work” section of the Taft-Hartley Act. Although Albert is fundamentally a liberal, Albert views himself as a constructive legislator more than anything else, stating that he “very much disliked doctrinaire liberals – they want to own your minds. And I don’t like reactionary conservatives. I like to face issues in terms of conditions and not in terms of someone’s inborn political philosophy” (The Norman Transcript). Albert has a setback when he suffers a heart attack in 1966, which during the busy Great Society Congress sets him back four months. In 1968, he chairs the tumultuous Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Two years later, Speaker John McCormack, now 79 years old, opts for retirement, and Albert succeeds him.
As Speaker, Carl Albert would support Nixon on the Vietnam War, but would oppose efforts to curb busing, oppose a school prayer amendment, and support expansions of government in education and welfare. Albert’s leadership style was not ruthless; he ruled through persuasion. As he said on his style, “If you whip them into line every time, by the session’s third vote you’re through. If you can’t win them by persuasion you can’t win them at all” (Time Magazine, 2). Albert would preside over a troubled relationship between the legislature and the executive, with the House battling President Nixon over impoundments and Albert referring the investigation into Watergate to the Judiciary Committee. Twice he would be next in line for the presidency; from when Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973 on corruption charges to Gerald Ford’s confirmation by Congress as vice president, and in 1974 from when Richard Nixon resigned to when Nelson Rockefeller was confirmed by Congress as vice president. As Albert would note in his 1990 memoir, “You can’t get around the fact that I was there one breath away from the White House” (Cathey). However, Albert absolutely didn’t want to be president and fretted over the possibility.
Carl Albert was not without some personal troubles in his time as speaker. The first of these was in September 1972, when he crashed into two cars. Although the damage was minor, Albert was reported to have been drinking that night, and according to witnesses when approached by officers he pushed at them and yelled, “Leave me alone, I’m Carl Albert, speaker of the House … you can’t touch me … I just got you your raises” (Ghosts of DC). President Nixon had recently signed legislation increasing pay for D.C. police officers and firemen. Albert negotiated a payment for the owner of one of the cars, and the other drove off after finding little damage. Drunk driving was not regarded as serious of a subject fifty years ago. He would also be tied to the Koreagate Scandal, but he was cleared of taking bribes from Korean businessman Tongsun Park (Lerner). Albert ultimately decided not to run for reelection in 1976. He stated in retrospect, “I was tired when I left. I wanted to go home” (U.S. House).
In Retirement and Conclusion
Albert continues to make speeches around the country after retiring but has to pull back after suffering another heart attack in 1981. He has a successful triple-bypass surgery in 1985, which extends his life considerably; Albert was able to participate in the 1988 Democratic National Convention, delivering a speech. In 1990, he published his memoir, Little Giant, which he wrote with the assistance of Professor Danney Goble (The Norman Transcript). Democrats running in the state actively courted his support, and he remained interested in politics right up until his death on February 4, 2000, aged 91.
Albert was in a sense politically much like LBJ: both did not cast a vote for civil rights legislation until 1957, both were strong civil rights supporters from 1964 on, both were strong supporter of increasing the welfare state, and both were staunch supporters of the oil industry. However, he was different in his views on power and on personality. LBJ had tremendous presidential aspirations, Albert had no such aspirations. LBJ would use every trick and tactic in the book to win a vote, while Albert had limits on what he would do. As an obituary in The Oklahoman put it, “Albert will be remembered as a speaker who refused to use the power and muscle at his command to get things done. He refused to blast obstructionists, squelch petty rivalries or chastise those who brought discredit on the House” (The Oklahoman). Albert’s aim was to win passage of legislation he believed was good for America, and he certainly did that during the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson Administrations. To this day, Albert has held the highest political office of any Oklahoman.
Carl Albert: Nose-Counter From Bugtussle. (1962, January 12). Time Magazine.
Cathey, M. (2019, November 23). One heartbeat away – twice – from the U.S. Presidency. McAlester News-Capital.
Drunk Speaker of the House Crashes Into Two Cars. (2012, December 6). Ghosts of DC.
Lerner, R.E. (1978, March 8). Park Never Paid O’Neill, Albert. The Telegraph.
‘Little Giant’ dies at age 91 Carl Albert served 30 years in House. (2000, February 6). The Oklahoman.
Sloan, E.M. Albert, Carl Bert. The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture.
Speaker of the House Carl Albert of Oklahoma. U.S. House of Representatives.
The ‘Man from Bugtussle’ made national impact. (2007, June 1). The Norman Transcript.