Little Giant from Little Dixie: Carl Albert (1908-2000)

Born in a mining camp near McAlester, this tiny boy in worn overalls became the first high school graduate from the Bug Tussle community. He wound up being the highest elected official of any Oklahoman in history.


Albert scattered vibrant pearls of his youth throughout his autobiography, including:


“In (our) backyard stood the universal and indispensable instrument of life in rural Oklahoma: a huge, black iron boiling pot, its three short legs resting on rocks. In the summer, it heated water for shoeless children to wash their feet nightly. In the fall, it converted ashes and hog fat into lye soap. Year round, it boiled our clothes, which my mother then washed with the lye soap on a scrub board set in a No. 3 washtub.”


While still an OU college student, Albert won a national oratorical contest on the U.S. Constitution. He earned his law degree at OU, then another as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford in England. When he took his Congressional seat in Washington in 1947, two fellow freshmen with whom he would become lifelong friends approached him.


That morning, Richard “Dick” Nixon complimented him on that 1927 oratorical triumph, and joked about his own quick exit in a later contest. That afternoon, John “Jack” Kennedy asked was he the Rhodes Scholar from Oklahoma, and expressed his honor at meeting him.


World War II interrupted Albert’s legal work for army artillery training. He was soon commissioned an officer, and transferred in 1942 to the Army Air Corps’ judge advocate general’s (JAG) legal division. While serving in Washington, D.C., he met, dated, and married Mary Harmon, a South Carolina native who worked in his office.


A few months later, he was transferred to the JAG office of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Allied Commander in the Pacific theater. Based in Brisbane, Australia, MacArthur was planning the invasion and reconquest of the Philippines, en route to defeating Japan. Unfortunately, as Albert recalled, rank immorality, corruption, and black market profiteering riddled the American troops there:


“General MacArthur was determined to restore military discipline. For that reason, he wanted a strong JAG branch, one particularly fitted to criminal prosecution. That was the assignment that brought me to Brisbane. I had not been there long before I realized just how important that task was. Black markets operated openly. Theft—organized, massive theft—was gaining momentum.


“Both officers and men had grown accustomed to treating government property as their personal possession. The intelligence units that MacArthur had ordered beefed up had no trouble at all locating offenders and gathering evidence. The (JAG) staff had the more difficult mission: winning convictions in an environment that had come to expect such misdeeds as routine, even the soldier’s fair reward.”


Albert’s prosecutorial work in Australia, New Guinea, then the Philippines ranged from a vast bootlegging network that purloined alcohol by army medical dispensaries, to murder, to gang rape, to colossal theft of government property operation. “The scale and the audacity of the (latter) operations were almost unbelievable,” Albert said. The arrogance of the lieutenant colonel masterminding it was, too.


As the breadth and scope of that particular case grew, Albert realized that the entire architecture of military authority in the region teetered on successfully prosecuting it and punishing the perpetrators: “A defeat would doom our hope to restore discipline.” The case proved “long and complex.” Gradually, Albert and supporting JAG members sought, gathered, and presented evidence that became “a heaving volcano of proof.”


The Oklahoman delivered a decisive closing argument. The lieutenant colonel got five years in prison, and the worm turned on corruption and military discipline in the South Pacific. The conviction proved significant enough that Carl Albert won the Bronze Star for his efforts.


Historic Congressional Service


His come-from-behind victory margin in the runoff for Third District Congressman upon his return to Oklahoma was a scant 330 votes, the closest of his career.


His letter to himself upon entering Congress in February 1947 closed with:


“As much as I like my job I would not want it unless I could help my people. I hope, when I am through, it will be said that I represented them well and that I served my country as a congressman in my day and generation to the best of my ability.”


Albert’s purpose, determination, and intellect caught the attention of House Speaker Sam Rayburn. The powerful Texan, who grew up just down the old “Texas Road” from Albert in Bonham, aided the freshman representative’s career by inviting him to his office for informal chats, offering him tips and insights, and paving the way for a key Agriculture Committee assignment. This later enabled Albert to aid Oklahoma Senator Robert S. Kerr in the successful feat of building the McClellan-Kerr Navigation System (OKLAHOMANS 2, Chapters 7, 8, 11).


Albert advanced to Democratic Majority Whip in 1955, then Majority Leader in 1962. In 1971, he took the gavel as Oklahoma’s highest elective leader, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. During his six years as speaker, he rose to a level of selfless statesmanship that few ever have as events closed in on Republican President Richard Nixon over his coverup of the Watergate Hotel burglary that political supporters of his had botched.


A chorus of voices among Albert’s Democratic allies urged him to take supreme political advantage of the situation and: 1) block or at least delay confirmation of Rep. Gerald Ford as vice president to succeed the already-disgraced Spiro Agnew, 2) railroad Nixon’s impeachment through the house, 3) take the presidency himself as next in the Constitutional line of succession. The Oklahoman’s own words describe his response:


“I cannot claim even to have listened very politely to such suggestions. No decision I could ever make would be more significant for my country. In an impeachment inquiry, two institutions would be judged, not one. We would examine the president, and the American people would examine us.”


As the house lawfully deliberated, Nixon resigned rather than face impeachment and possible ouster and even prison, Ford took office, and the Republic continued.

 

The above article is a bonus to the fascinating historical content found within our book

Oklahomans Vol 2 :

Statehood - 2020s

which can be purchased HERE.


View the inspiring 2-minute preview video HERE.

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