The chances are that anyone who knew Carl Albert knows this story. I learned it in our first conversation, the one in which he asked me if I would help write his memoirs. The story, he said, had to be in the book because that was really where it all had begun.
The year was 1914. The place was the Bug Tussle school. The occasion was the visit of United States Representative Charles D. Carter. Part Chickasaw, Carter was the district's congressman. In fact, he was the only congressman it had ever had, and he was there to address Bug Tussle's entire student body, all thirty or so of them. He told the kids what he did in Washington, explained about working with Speaker Champ Clark, talked about knowing President Woodrow Wilson. He finished with words that Carl Albert recalled and repeated all the rest of his life. "I'm an Indian boy, and it's wonderful in this country that a man who's a member of a minority can be elected to Congress." And then Charlie Carter said this: "A boy in this school might someday be the congressman from this district."
Right then, right there, Carl Albert knew. He had no doubt. Representative Charles Carter was talking to him. He, the six-year-old son of Ernie and Leona Scott Albert, was the one that would go to Congress.
In the years that followed, I heard that story countless times. He worked it in with every school group I saw him address. When we talked, he always seemed to find a way to remind me that it had to be included in his memoirs. After we finished that book, Little Giant: The Life and Times of Speaker Carl Albert, he liked to tell it to children while he autographed the copies their parents were buying. It was his favorite story, and it was his most important too.
When I think about Carl Albert, I think less about formal speeches, media interviews, and press conferences in Washington than about that one talk back at the Bug Tussle school. I recall, too, one of our private, informal exchanges. I had been researching long enough that I knew most of the details of Carl Albert's public life, and I was then spending most of my time interviewing the Speaker, filling in personal details. During one visit, we went to lunch at a little café about three blocks from his office in McAlester. While we awaited our orders, I thought to ask him a question. "Of all the things that you have achieved and of all the honors that you have won, what," I asked, "are you proudest of?" There was a pause, not a long one but long enough that I knew that he was really thinking about it. Then he answered "I think it was winning that high school speech contest in 1927."
The answer surprised me, but it probably should not have. I ought to have known by then that Carl Albert liked to think and talk about Oklahoma a lot more than he did about Washington. That was not because Carl Albert was retired and living in Oklahoma. It was because he was from Oklahoma. Carl Albert was of Oklahoma, particularly the part called "Little Dixie."
Geographically, Little Dixie is the state's southeastern corner, where Oklahoma bumps up against the Old South. Historically, it is the former Choctaw Nation, reaching over to catch part of the old Chickasaw and Creek lands too. Demographically, its people include a good mix of Native Americans, African Americans, and whites, the last often just a generation or so from Texas and Arkansas or Italy and Russia. Politically, Little Dixie is just about coequal to Oklahoma Third Congressional District. That is the one that Carl Albert represented for thirty years, becoming - as Oklahomans like to say - "The Little Giant from Little Dixie."
When Carl Albert was born there, Oklahoma had been a state for less than a year. If there was anything notable about the Albert folks, it was only how stunningly typical they were. Ernie Albert was a sometime coal miner, sometime farmer. Leona Scott Albert bore and raised kids. Neither parent had more than four years of schooling, each "year" just a few months long. Other Alberts and Scotts included farmers, mostly renters, and laborers, mostly unskilled. Either way, mostly all were poor, mostly little noticed. An exception was a pair famed for having avenged their brother's murder by shooting dead the fellow who had done it. Both got off with pleas of self-defense. One then went on to become a God-called but self-schooled preacher, especially popular on the revival circuit for his gift of "speaking in tongues."
In early Oklahoma, there were tens of thousands of families like the Alberts, and most of them had a passel of kids like their oldest, Carl. Just about all the families in the Bug Tussle community were like them. Just about all of the kids in Bug Tussle's tiny school were like its littlest pupil, six-year-old Carl. The one difference was that he was the one - the only one - who really believed what Charlie Carter said in 1914: Someone like him could be a congressman, and Carl Albert would.
It was not a fantasy, not even a dream. It was a goal. To an astonishing degree, it was the goal toward which he directed his life, beginning in his youngest years. If he was going to be a congressman, he would have to go to high school. Bug Tussle did not even have a high school, just eight grades, and no one from those parts had ever had either the desire or the ability to go on to a high school somewhere else. Carl Albert had both. He had to sit out a year before he could manage it. When he started, he was the only kid who wore denim overalls, chambray work shirts, and cheap brogan shoes to McAlester's fine new high school. But Carl Albert was there.
He was there because a future congressman had to be there. A future congressman also had to compile a first-class academic record, and this one did. When Carl Albert graduated from McAlester High School, his grades on every test in every subject had averaged nearly 98 percent. No one had before or has since matched that record.
He also had acquired, refined, and mastered the single most important instrument in a future congressman's toolkit. Carl Albert started high school an insecure but driven country kid, unknown outside of the few families living in Bug Tussle. He left it an orator confident of his ability to move audiences and aware of just how far those gifts could take him. Along the way, he had become known well enough that the state's largest newspaper, Oklahoma City's Daily Oklahoman, was putting his name on its front page. "Carl Albert Goes East", one day's headline read.
All of that happened because Carl Albert won a speech contest in 1927. Thousands of high school students from all over the country had entered, each writing and delivering orations on the Constitution of the United States. There were seven national winners, each the product of district, state, and regional competition. Carl Albert won the preliminary rounds at home and the regional title at Kansas City. Then Carl Albert went east, all the way to Washington. Some proud McAlester citizens paid his train fare, and local merchants gave him his first suit and watch. At Constitution Hall, he and the other six winners addressed an audience that included the justices of the United States Supreme Court. The next day, they met President Calvin Coolidge, even had their picture taken with him on the White House lawn. Then they boarded the Leviathan, the world's largest passenger ship, and crossed the Atlantic. That is how Carl Albert first went to Washington and how he came to spend the summer of 1927 in London, Oxford, Paris, Venice, Rome, and Geneva.
More than sixty years later, he still considered it his proudest achievement. That had to owe a lot to the experiences that winning had opened to him. Suddenly Carl Albert's world included things scarcely imagined in Pittsburg County, if imagined at all. But it was also partly because the competition had been so worthy. As it turned out, three of the seven winners met again at Oxford four years later, when he and two others returned as Rhodes scholars. Partly it was because he had had to work so hard for it. He told me that he had spent nearly a month practicing and polishing the delivery of the first sentence alone. But I think it was mostly how all of those things fit together. After he won that speech contest, Carl Albert knew where he could go - anywhere he wanted. He knew too how to get there - outwork everybody else.
That is how he went to Congress. In between, there was college at the University of Oklahoma. As a freshman, he repeated his high school triumph by winning a collegiate version of an oratorical contest over the Constitution. As a senior, he won every award OU had to give: a Phi Beta Kappa key, the Dads' Day trophy as outstanding male student, and the Rhodes scholarship. At Oxford, he studied law and traveled Europe - probably learning more with the second than from the first. Returning home, he found jobs scarce in Depression-era Oklahoma and virtually non-existent where he was from, down in its southeastern quarter. He got a little work here, some more there, and filled in the blanks working in political campaigns for good Democrats. It was 1940 before he found a decent job, and he had to go to Illinois to get it. The Second World War ended that job as Private Carl Albert went to war. In 1946, Lieutenant Colonel Carl Albert came home. Home was Oklahoma - its Third Congressional District, to be exact.
It was the right place, and he was the right man at the right time. He had been building a reputation since his high school days. He had friends from McAlester, from the university, and among Democrats all over the district. The war that had taken him away had also made him a veteran, and no currency had greater political value in 1946. He worked the district night and day, shaking every outstretched hand, talking to any willing voter, orating before any group that would have him. It was close - a margin of exactly 330 votes gave him the Democratic nomination - but Carl Albert was going to represent that district in Washington. It was just like Charlie Carter had said.
That is how Carl Albert went to Congress from Little Dixie. Once there, he came to add the other half of that title, the "Little Giant" part. The Little Giant from Little Dixie - the two pieces just seemed to fit.
If they did, it was no accident. In our first conversation, he told me that he had not been in Washington a month before a dozen veteran congressman congratulated him for having the best district in the whole country. They meant what they said, and Carl Albert knew what they meant. One aspiring to a giant's stature in Congress could come from nowhere better than Oklahoma's Little Dixie. A lot of the folks living there had heard of Republicans, some had even seen Republicans, but not very many were Republicans. A Democrat representing Oklahoma's Third District would never have to work too hard every other fall. In fact, summer primary seasons were pretty dull too since the district was awfully partial to incumbents.
Little Dixie was safe for a Democratic congressman, safe enough to profit the ambitious and energetic as well as protect the satisfied and lazy. Representing it, someone who wanted to go somewhere in Congress did not have to keep looking out for his back. Better yet, he could look over the district's southern border, along the Red River, right where the river touched Texas's Fourth Congressional District. That was the district represented by Sam Rayburn.
"Mr. Rayburn" - I never heard Carl Albert call him anything else - was the House's Speaker and its most revered member. It went without saying that he was its most powerful. That power grew from the rules, both formal and informal, of the House of Representatives and of the Democratic party. But it also owed much to Rayburn's singular devotion to those institutions. A bachelor, Sam Rayburn was married to the House of Representatives. In place of children, he drew to himself talented young members, with a special fondness for Democrats from his part of the country. When Carl Albert went to Congress, he was just the right age, he had just the right gifts, he came from just the right district, he was even just the right size to become the Speaker's political protégé, if not his surrogate son.
Oklahoma's Little Dixie also gave Carl Albert something especially valuable to a Democrat like Sam Rayburn at a time like the late 1940s and early 1950s. In the House, Rayburn led Democrats who were less a unified party than an uneasy coalition. Those who shared the name Democrat often had other, not altogether flattering, names for other Democrats, with whom they shared nothing else. Some were northerners from the nation's great, teeming, industrial cities. Others came from the south's sleepy, tiny, unhurried villages. Some were left-leaning reformers preparing to revive the New Deal. Others were moss-backed reactionaries longing for the nineteenth century. Some seemed ready to fight another civil war for racial justice. Others refused to admit that they had lost the last one. To bridge those divides, Rayburn looked always for just the right man.
Carl Albert was that man not least because he came from just the right place. Little Dixie was far enough south to carry the name Dixie, but it was also far enough north and west not to be dismissed as merely southern. Once a stronghold of Socialism, the district still had a strong instinct for reform; but its oil interests, small-town chambers of commerce, and expanding middle class gave it sensible conservatives too. Above all, its people were neither sectionalists nor ideologues. They were just good Democrats, pragmatists who realized that their congressman's career in Washington was more important than any vote he would ever cast.
Their congressman was Carl Albert, and Carl Albert had quite a career
- thirty years in Congress, Democratic whip, House majority leader, Speaker
of the United States House of Representatives, twice next-in-line for the
presidency, honored elder statesman. That kind of record can make a man
a Little Giant. In Carl Albert's case, it did just that. And, finally,
it took him all the way back to where that six-year-old heard the challenging
words of Congressman Charlie Carter, back to where the teenager prepared
to enter a speech contest, back to Little Dixie.
Danney Goble, who helped Carl Albert in the writing of his memoirs, is a professor in the Department of Classics and Letters at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of Progressive Oklahoma: The Making of a New Kind of State and coauthor of Oklahoma Politics and The Story of Oklahoma, all published by the University of Oklahoma Press.