Carl Bert Albert, an Oklahoma Democrat who rose from a miner’s shack to become speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives during the turbulent Watergate era, died Friday night at a hospital in McAlester, Okla. He was 91.
The diminutive Albert, known throughout his career as the “Little Giant From Little Dixie,” had been in frail health for several years. He suffered heart attacks in 1966 and 1981 and he underwent triple-bypass heart surgery in March 1985. He had also received radiation therapy for cancer in the 1980s.
Twice during his six years as House speaker, Albert stood next in line for the presidency when the nation had no vice president--once after Spiro T. Agnew’s resignation from the office in 1973 and again after Gerald R. Ford replaced Richard M. Nixon as president in 1974. He was widely perceived at the time as afraid of becoming president, but it was revealed later in interviews that he was secretly prepared and willing to assume the presidency if necessary.
Albert was never considered a strong speaker in the mold of either his mentor, the late Rep. Sam Rayburn (D-Texas), or his successor, Rep. Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. (D-Mass.). He thought of himself more as an administrator than as a combatant for his party’s policies. When the 2-1 Democratic majority in the House failed to override a string of Ford’s vetoes in 1975, criticism of Albert reached its peak and apparently contributed to his decision to retire in 1977.
Despite the criticism, Albert won praise from colleagues for his support of internal reforms that opened many House committee meetings to the public and broke the iron grip of a House seniority system, which had given autocratic power to a group of aging, conservative committee chairmen.
He was speaker during the historic Nixon impeachment proceedings in the House Judiciary Committee and was given high marks for keeping the process going and ensuring that it was impartially conducted. Some Democrats had urged him to accelerate the Nixon impeachment and slow the confirmation of Ford as vice president so that he might be able to seize the presidency. But Albert resisted, although he did have a blueprint for a presidential transition prepared secretly.
“I didn’t even tell the leadership of the House what I was doing,” he recalled in 1982. “If I had indicated that I wanted it, it would have been a national scandal because the press then would really have clobbered us for anything we did that indicated any rush to get Nixon.”
Modest and homespun, yet brilliant and fiercely competitive, Albert made a Horatio Alger-type rise from childhood poverty to Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Oklahoma and on to Rhodes scholar at Oxford University, where he earned two law degrees, and to speaker of the House. A college champion debater, he is still remembered on Capitol Hill for a rather high-pitched voice that penetrated the far reaches of the big House chamber.
Albert was born May 10, 1908, in an unpainted, four-room miner’s shack in McAlester and later lived in a double log house on a tenant farm in nearby Bug Tussle. One of five children, Albert did not live in a house with electricity or running water until he was 16.
Albert entered Congress in 1947 from a rural Oklahoma district known as “Little Dixie” for its Southern orientation. He was a freckle-faced redhead--later his hair turned dark brown--who claimed to stand 5 feet, 4 inches tall. Much to Albert’s chagrin, a 5-5 reporter once wrote a story estimating his true height at 4-11.
Albert became the House’s No. 2 Democrat in 1955 when then-Speaker Rayburn plucked him from the back bench, declaring: “I can tell big timber from small brush.” As such, Albert was on the seniority system’s automatic escalator, which lifted him to majority leader in 1962 and to speaker in 1971.
Albert retired to his Oklahoma roots, dictating memoirs and answering mail at his McAlester office and looking out over Lake Eufaula from the front porch of his modest house.
His presence in the area is marked everywhere, including the Carl Albert Parkway, the Carl Albert Mental Health Center, Carl Albert Junior College and the Carl Albert statue in front of the federal building where he maintained his congressional office.
Albert is survived by his wife, Mary, a son, a daughter, a brother, a sister and four grandchildren.