Carl Albert was a Democratic Congressman from Oklahoma who served as Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1971 to 1977. While the office of Speaker of the House is an important and prestigious position and Albert had played a key role in seeing that Presidents Kennedy and Johnson’s domestic agendas were passed and he chaired the Democratic National Convention in 1968, Carl Albert is not much remembered outside Oklahoma. Perhaps he did not play an especially memorable role in politics, yet the story of how he might have become president in 1973 is interesting and perhaps worth recalling.
Richard Nixon’s first Vice-President, Spiro Agnew, resigned on October 10, 1973 after being indicted on charges of bribery, extortion and tax evasion. While the constitution mandates that the Vice-President assumes the presidency upon the death, resignation or disability of the President, there was no requirement that the new president should appoint another Vice-President until the adoption of the twenty-fifth amendment in 1967. If the President died and was succeeded by the the Vice-President or the Vice-President died in office or resigned, the office of the Vice-President was vacant until the next election. This actually happened sixteen times, with such presidents as John Tyler and Andrew Johnson until the adoption of the twenty-fifth amendment, and would have happened in 1973 if the twenty-fifth amendment had not been ratified.
Following the terms of the twenty-fifth amendment, President Nixon nominated the Republican House Minority Leader Gerald Ford for the Vice-Presidency on October 12, but Ford was not confirmed by Congress until December 6, so for about seven weeks the Office of the Vice-Presidency was vacant. Now, by this time the Watergate scandal was unfolding and it was becoming increasingly likely that Nixon would be impeached, or forced to resign. If this occurred while the Vice-Presidency was vacant the new President who be the person next in the line of succession, none other that the Speaker of the House, Carl Albert.
As Speaker of the House of Representatives, Carl Albert was responsible for scheduling the vote to confirm Ford in the House, as well as preparing articles of impeachment against the president. Albert could easily have postponed the confirmation of Ford indefinitely, as well as expediting articles of impeachment and perhaps forcing Nixon’s resignation. Albert could have maneuvered his way into the White House. He chose not to. Albert stated that he did not believe that as a Democrat he had the right to take a position that the people had chosen to give to a Republican in the previous election. Had he arranged to make himself President, the effort would have been tantamount to a coup. Moreover, He stated that had circumstances caused him to become president, he would have felt obliged to resign as soon as a Republican Vice-President was chosen.
I wonder what would happen if similar events occurred today. Suppose the Democrats sweep the midterm elections next year and gain comfortable majorities in both houses of Congress. Suppose further, that something happened to Vice-President Mike Pence, either he dies in office or resigns. Suppose also that the Democrats decide to impeach Donald Trump for the high crime and misdemeanor of being Donald Trump. When Trump nominates a successor to Vice-President Pence, would Speaker Nancy Pelosi schedule a vote to confirm the nominee, or would she delay it hoping that Trump is impeached and convicted, or resigns, making her the President?
I have a hard time believing that Pelosi, or any Democrat, or for that matter any Republican, would be as high minded as Carl Albert was under his circumstances. It seems to me that more and more the people we trust to lead this nation are less interested in following the rules and more interested simply in gaining and keeping power, whatever the cost to the country. Speaker Albert knew that he would not be entitled to make himself President and decided not to bend the rules to his advantage. I think all too many people in government today would have no trouble at all bending or even ignoring the rules. We seem to have declined somehow in the last decades, despite the advances we have made in technology and economically. Our culture has grown coarser. We seem increasingly less interested in playing by the rules or in adhering to the norms that allow a diverse people to live together in harmony.
A democratic government needs these kinds of rules and norms. People have to accept the results of an election, even when the candidate they don’t like wins. People have to support the rule of law, even the laws they don’t happen to like. People have to free expression, even of ideas they find repugnant. If we stop following these rules and norms, we cannot continue to be a free and democratic country. Maybe we can turn things around before it is too late. I hope it isn’t already too late.
- Why Nixon matters in the era of Donald Trump (telegraph.co.uk)