On January 3, 1949, only a few years after America's triumph in World War II, Representatives gathered in the House Chamber for the opening day of the 81st Congress (1949–1951). On a day full of tradition and fanfare, the families of many Members packed the galleries and the House Floor to watch the proceedings. Years later, Cokie Roberts, the daughter of two former Representatives, Hale and Lindy Boggs of Louisiana, recalled accompanying her father (who was set to begin his third term in the House) to the Capitol. Only five-years-old at the time, Roberts later reflected on her memories of the day which included a humorous story about the election of Sam Rayburn of Texas as Speaker of the 81st Congress.
The morning began with the Clerk of the House John Andrews calling Members to order. After House Chaplain Reverend James Shera Montgomery led the chamber in prayer, the reading clerk called the roll of each Representative-elect by state. The new Congress included two future Speakers of the House, John McCormack of Massachusetts and Carl Albert of Oklahoma, as well as three young Representatives who would become household names, future Presidents John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Richard M. Nixon of California, and Gerald Ford of Michigan. The 81st Congress also reflected the growing diversity in the House, with two African-American Members, most notably Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., of New York, and nine women Representatives, including Mary Norton of New Jersey who chaired four House committees during her congressional career. But, without a doubt, Rayburn, commonly known as "Mr. Sam," and a Member of the House since 1913, remained the most recognizable person in the chamber on opening day.
Poised to serve as Speaker of the House for a fifth time with the Democrats winning control of the House during the 1948 election, Rayburn previously held the coveted post from late in the 76th Congress through the 79th Congress (1940–1947). "It was Rayburn and Martin," Roberts recalled of the vote for Speaker on January 3, 1949. "And I thought that they were calling the roll. So people stood up and said, 'Rayburn, Mr. Rayburn, Mr. Martin.' And I finally tugged on my father and said, 'There are an awful lot of Mr. Rayburns and Mr. Martins.' And he didn't at first know what I was saying. And then he realized what my confusion was, and got a good giggle and explained it to me." Ultimately, the House membership voted 255 to 160 for Rayburn over Joe Martin of Massachusetts, the Speaker during the 80th Congress (1947–1949). Gracious in defeat, Martin praised his colleague and set a conciliatory tone for the day. "You have elected a Member of the House as Speaker who has served for nearly a third of a century in this great debating Chamber," he observed. "He is a man of great ability, of rare parliamentary acumen, and skillful in debate." To Cokie Roberts, and to others who admired Rayburn, the election, and the events of opening day, confirmed that it once again was Mr. Sam's House. After Rayburn's passing in 1961, Roberts wrote a letter to her father which alluded to her misunderstanding as a child about the election of the Speaker in 1949. "I was wrong, you know. There weren't a lot of Mr. Rayburns and Mr. Martins. There was only one of each."
Sources: Congressional Record, House, 81st Cong., 1st sess. (3 January 1949): 7–29.