The Life of Carl Albert

Birth to Adolescence

Carl Albert was born May 10, 1908, in a mining camp in North McAlester, scarcely a year after statehood had been achieved for Oklahoma. He was the first of five children born to Ernest Homer and Leona Scott Albert. 

When he was three, his parents bought a farm in the community of Flowery Mound, commonly called Bug Tussle. It was at Bug Tussle that young Carl Albert began his formal education. The fact that a jumble of printed words on a page could have meaning came as a dazzling discovery to the six-year-old. Carl was the first Bug Tussle pupil ever to progress to a high school diploma. 

Completing the eighth grade at the Flowery Mound school, Carl had to drop out of school temporarily. He stayed out only a year, helping his father on the farm and studying on his own. Then, the family moved back into McAlester, and he resumed his formal studies at McAlester High School. He went on to become president of the student body, a member of the state championship debate team, and class valedictorian. The class yearbook hung a tag on him that has remained with him ever since: "The Little Giant." 

Along with his other honors, he was the Midwest champion in the Fourth National Oratorical Contest on the Constitution. It is significant that his early orations were based on the Constitution of the United States. His first-place award made him the representative of a million high school students; the award also granted him a three-month summer tour of Europe. In the national contest, he appeared before President Calvin Coolidge and the Justices of the Supreme Court, who acted as judges of that competition. 

Reminiscing in 1974 about his earliest recollections, he wrote "the youthful experiences of my early life in southeastern Oklahoma had a profound impact on my life. I can still vividly recall the happy days of my childhood with my family and the adventures experienced by all children. It was one of the happiest times of my life." 

OU and Oxford

Carl Albert arrived at the University of Oklahoma in the fall of 1927 with only ten dollars in his pocket. However, by that same evening, he had located three jobs by which to supplement that meager sum. His entire OU education would be financed by working as a soda jerk, waiting tables, tutoring, and winning cash awards in oratorical contests. As a freshman, Albert joined the oratorical team and was coached by Professor Josh Lee, himself a future U.S. Representative and Senator. Lee described his student as "a pleasure to coach." According to Lee, Carl "had a good voice and he spoke deliberately. He always sounded like he was thinking the words he was saying. Sincerity is the key to being a good speaker, and Carl Albert was always sincere." 

During his freshman year, Albert won the National Oratorical Contest with a further delivery on the Constitution. This contest awarded him $1500 in cash and a trip to Hawaii. He would study and practice constantly to improve his speaking ability. Albert and his good friend, Van Heflin, both members of Phi Eta Sigma, the freshman honorary fraternity, often discussed methods of improving their ability to communicate. 

Albert was a member of the varsity wrestling, chess, and pistol teams, as well as of Kappa Alpha fraternity. Majoring in government, he studied under Professor Cortez Ewing, who described him as one of the best half-dozen students he had ever taught. By graduation in June, 1931, Albert had earned the Key of Phi Beta Kappa, an R.O.T.C. Honor Student Award, the Letzeiser Medal for Men, and membership in Pe-et, the senior men's honorary society. He had also been elected president of the Student Body and "Best All-Around Student at the University of Oklahoma." William Bennett Bizzell, the president of the University, said, "Carl Albert is probably the brightest mind ever to come to this University up to this time." 

Perhaps the greatest award bestowed on Carl Albert as a result of his tenure at Norman was that of a Rhodes Scholarship, which enabled him to study at Oxford University for three years. Other University of Oklahoma alumni attending Oxford as Rhodes Scholars during this period were Savoie Lottinville, destined to become the Director of the OU Press, and Willmoore Kendall, later to become a well-known political scientist. Albert gained an understanding of Europe before World War II by taking advantage of his time in England to travel throughout the continent and North Africa. In 1934 he graduated from St. Peter's College, Oxford, with honors, with two degrees, a Bachelor of Arts in Laws and a Bachelor of Civil Laws. 

Early Work and World War II

Upon his return from England, Albert worked as a legal clerk with the Federal Housing Administration in Oklahoma City from 1934 to 1937. In 1935 he was admitted to the Oklahoma Bar, and after leaving FHA, he concentrated on the practice of oil law in Oklahoma, Illinois, and Ohio. 

In June 1941, he enlisted as a private in the armed forces and was stationed with the Third Armored Division at Camp Polk, Louisiana, and at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. After eight months his commander recommended him for a direct commission, and in 1942, as a 2nd Lieutenant, he was assigned to the Judge Advocate's office at the Pentagon. There he met Mary Harmon, who was a legal clerk in the same office. Six months later he put on his captain's bars, and Carl and Mary were married. After a short honeymoon and a course at the Judge Advocate's School, he went to the Pacific Theatre where he was stationed in Australia, New Guinea, the Philippines, and Japan. At the end of the war he returned as a Lt. Colonel with a Bronze Star, an Asiatic Pacific Campaign medal, the Philippines Liberation Ribbon, and the World War II Victory Medal. 

He arrived back in McAlester in March of 1946 to practice law and assess the current political situation. On the final day of the April filing period he learned that Third District Congressman Paul Stewart would be unable to run for re-election. He dashed to Oklahoma City and at four o'clock declared himself a Democratic candidate for Congress. In the July 2nd primary, Albert trailed Bill Steger by almost 4,000 votes; in the runoff he defeated Steger by a mere 329 votes, with a lead of 5-1 in his home county. Since the Third District was strongly Democratic, he went on to win the general election by a margin of 32,000 votes. The success of his initial campaign may well be attributed to the strong support of his high school classmates and to his outstanding speaking ability. One Choctaw Indian who heard Albert's speech in Hugo declared: "Little Owl got big hoot - gonna vote for him." 

Member of Congress: 1947-1977

Mr. Albert served a total of thirty years representing Oklahoma's Third Congressional District. At the time of his retirement he had bested Charles Carter's previous record, of almost twenty years from the same district, to become the longest-serving representative in Oklahoma history. Only his close friend and colleague Tom Steed was to better that record. Steed retired in 1980 after thirty-two years in the House. 

The Third Congressional District, comprising most of the section of Oklahoma known as "Little Dixie," has long been a Democratic bastion where it was said that "Republicans might pass through but few settle." After his narrow victory in the 1946 Democratic runoff, Mr. Albert faced few Democratic challengers and even fewer Republicans. The Third District lies just across the Red River from the Fourth Texas District, represented from 1917 to 1961 by Sam Rayburn, and Mr. Albert's House career was inextricably intertwined with that of "Mr. Sam." 

Mr. Albert was assigned to the Committee on Agriculture in 1947 and remained on that committee until he became majority leader in 1962. He also served on the Select Committee to Investigate Lobbying Activities, the Committee on Post Office and Civil Service, the Committee on House Administration, and the Joint Committee on the Library of Congress. Briefly he sat on the Committees on Education and Labor and the Committee on Science and Astronautics. Representing the Third District continued as a top priority for Mr. Albert even after he began his ascent of the House leadership ladder. He early gained the admiration of his constituents and remained enormously popular throughout the remainder of his career. This popularity more easily enabled him to win re-election without always agreeing with the prevailing wishes of his district. 

The thirty-year period of Mr. Albert's service in the House was a time of transformation in the postwar period. The Arkansas River Project and other river basin developments literally changed the face of much of Oklahoma. Federal defense establishments such as the McAlester Naval Ammunition Depot, Fort Sill, and the Tinker, Altus, and Vance Air Force Bases had major influence on employment in their respective regions. The Third Congressional District was the site of a major area redevelopment program. The increasing seniority of the Oklahoma delegation in Congress ensured the ability of the state to garner its share of federal funds for a variety of projects and programs. 

"A public servant must have a mind and will of his own," he once said, "or he'll wind up little more than an errand boy. Hear all sides, sure, but he must do what he feels is right--even when it does not jibe with popular demand. If I felt otherwise, I'd be ashamed of myself and would get out of politics." For the three decades of his service, the Third Congressional District of Oklahoma agreed with him. 

Whip and Majority Leader: 1955-1970

Mr. Albert was chosen by Speaker Sam Rayburn and Majority Leader John McCormack to become majority whip in 1955. Of his new position, Mr. Albert wrote in 1955: "It is the Whip's job to be present on the House floor most of the time the House is in session. He helps the majority leader to keep tabs on legislation, and he keeps the members advised of the legislative schedule. He attempts to make sure the members of his party are on the floor when a significant vote is imminent. On occasion the whip joins the Speaker and the majority leader in seeking to round up votes on an important issue." Many who served with Mr. Albert regarded him as the best Democratic whip to that time. His knowledge of members was legendary. "Once I had visited with a member, learned about his district, and watched him vote a few times, I could usually predict how he was going to vote," Albert often said. 

Remaining as whip through the close of 1961, Mr. Albert became majority leader when John McCormack was elected Speaker after the death of Sam Rayburn. Commenting on this new position in 1962, Mr. Albert described the duties of the majority leader as "planning the legislative program, scheduling the order of business on the floor of the House, supporting legislation to implement the party's platform, coordinating committee action, and using his influence to keep the party members in the House in line with party policies." 

Mr. Albert served in these leadership positions during a variety of Republican and Democratic administrations including those of Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon. The Wall Street Journal compared him with his mentor Sam Rayburn: "He . . . is a restrained liberal but party loyalist; he, too, shuns the dogmatic for the pragmatic; prefers reasons and persuasion to the brickbat; is small in build but tall in stature." Shifting alternately from contributor to Democratic planning to member of the "loyal opposition," Mr. Albert, from his vantage point in the halls of power, helped to shape a rapidly changing America. The span of years encompassed in his tenure as majority whip and leader saw such varied events as the birth of NASA, the social programs of the New Frontier and Great Society, the Civil Rights movement, a series of political assassinations, and the American involvement in Vietnam. 

Speaker of the House: 1971-1977

After the retirement of John McCormack from the House, Mr. Albert was elected Speaker of the House of Representatives in 1971, the third-highest elective office under the Constitution. The speakership incorporates both partisan and nonpartisan aspects. Elected by the entire House from nominees of each party Caucus, the Speaker has four major categories of responsibility: (1) As the elected head of the Party's caucus, the Speaker acts as political leader of the Party in the House. (2) While in the chair, however, the Speaker acts as the nonpartisan director of House business, maintaining collective order and dignity while protecting the rights and privileges of individual members. (3) As leader of the House, the Speaker represents that body in interaction with the Senate and the Executive Branch in carrying out the work of government. (4) As the elected member of one of the 435 House districts, the Speaker represents directly his own constituents in the House. Thus, the speakership embodies both nonpartisan and partisan duties, represents the wishes of the entire House as well as those of the Speaker's own district, and directs the operation of the House as an institution. 

Mr. Albert served as Speaker while the Republicans were in control of the White House during the administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Thus, he was the highest-ranking elected leader of the Democratic Party during that period. Twice he was second in line of succession to the presidency when the vice presidency was vacant following the resignation of Spiro Agnew and after the succession of Gerald Ford to the presidency. 

Carl Albert's tenure as Speaker may well have been the most difficult in the twentieth century. The Vietnam War divided the nation, and the Watergate affair threatened constitutional order. In the most serious constitutional crisis since the Civil War, Speaker Albert conducted the business of the House with dignity and integrity. At the same time, his speakership witnessed the most far-reaching reforms since the revolt against Speaker Joe Cannon in 1910. Among the major reforms were those giving the Speaker effective control over the Rules Committee and Democratic committee nominations. Carl Albert left the speakership a far more powerful office than it had been when his speakership began, and his successors have been the beneficiaries. 

Announcing his plans to retire in June 1976, the Speaker stated that "The House has been my life, my second home, my workshop for thirty years. I love the House of Representatives because it is the people's House." Commenting upon his retirement, the New York Times editorialized that he was "a conciliator and seeker of consensus, a patient persuader . . . trusted for his fairness and integrity." 

The Later Years: 1977-2000

When Carl Albert announced his retirement from Congress, he received offers to serve on the boards of dozens of corporations and associations. He turned them down and returned to Bug Tussle, which, he said, "was the kind of place where nobody's boy is for sale." He lectured for a few years at the University of Oklahoma, maintained an office in McAlester, made speeches across the country and around the world, and continued his interest in foreign languages. In 1991, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Oklahoma. Carl Albert passed away on February 4, 2000, in McAlester, just a few miles from where he had been born. 

This biographical sketch is part of a traveling exhibit that was prepared by Carl Albert Center archivists John Caldwell, Judy Day, and Todd Kosmerick. To view photos and additional text on the life of Carl Albert, visit the  Center's Internet Exhibit

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