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The Trials of Bert and Jimmy

Atlanta, September 7-9

British theologian Austin Farrar, discussing the chronology of the three Synoptic Gospels, compared them to staggering drunks who push and shove each other around, each sometimes leading and sometimes leaning, in a tug-of-war mutual dependence. In retrospect, Bert Lance, Jimmy Carter, and the Atlanta establishment look like such interdependent beneficiaries of rambling near-collapse.

Governor Carter was never popular with the Atlanta potentates, whose candidate (Carl Sanders) he defeated. But he knew how to use the prosperous showcase of the South as his own emblem and setting. Visiting journalists, members of the Trilateral Commission, were housed in the Atlanta governor’s mansion, and shown around the racially “moderate” city that (narrowly) bought off prejudice with dividends.

And Bert Lance, Carter’s director of transportation, was popular with Atlanta’s businessmen. As a small-town banker (where he married into the bank’s ownership) he had dealt with the four big money houses of Atlanta; and as Governor Carter’s dispenser of county-road patronage, he combined good business and good politics in a way the capital admired. When Carter ran Lance as his successor, Lance got the newspaper and Chamber of Commerce support that had been denied Carter.

Yet Lance was defeated, as Sanders had been, by South Georgia voters who do not like lavish-spending bankers. In 1970, Carter cast Sanders as “Cufflinks Carl.” In 1974, the winning candidate George Busbee attacked “Loophole Lance,” the man who was running his own campaign out of legal chinks in his own bank (an argument the United States Senate would learn to take seriously, at last, after ignoring it in Lance’s confirmation hearings). Busbee goaded Lance into disclosure of his assets—over three million dollars (if Lance was not kiting the figure then as he did later on). It says something about a political figure when he claims more wealth than everyone knows is good for his campaign. Georgia populism is more a matter of resentment than of program, but none the less powerful for that. Lance’s boss knew enough to call himself a peanut “farmer” not a peanut processor.*

Lance lost, after sinking half a million dollars of his own money in his own campaign; but he thought the loss a gain. He had invested in Atlanta, and in having his name recognized there. He moved to town as president of the fifth largest bank (trailing the big four by a long way), and bought a sixty-room Gone With the Wind pillared mansion (with fourteen bathrooms). His wife named it “Butterfly Manna”—Butterfly because that is her private pious-flirty symbol, and Manna because the Lord had dropped it on them overnight (but can butterfly manna fly off again after landing?).

Lance blitzed Atlanta, doing bank commercials on TV as if he were still running for office. He seemed a reviving breath of hot air just when the wind had gone again in Atlanta. This was 1975, and the boom was over. The buildings still shot up, but more slowly; and their offices stood empty. Real estate investment trusts were folding, and banks looked twice at the kinds of loan they used to push out at investors. It was time to rethink the creed of that man most responsible for Atlanta’s boom in the first place.

Mayor Ivan Allen is given the popular credit for Atlanta’s surge in the Sixties. But the man who persuaded Allen to run in the first place—using cash, that greatest persuader—was banker Mills B. Lane, who had made his Citizens and Southern Bank not only the biggest bank in the South, but the hottest bank in the sunbelt. It had by his retirement eighty offices in Georgia, and stock in forty out-of-state banks; and it moved to the rapid beat of Lane’s confident expansiveness: “We’re a department store for money.”

Lane, like Lance, came from a small-bank family background. And Lane’s life was a series of leaps forward on the big risk. In 1947, as a bank vice president, he proposed an easy loan policy for car purchasers (his father had grown soybeans for the Ford cars’ synthetic steering wheels). When bank superiors turned Lane down, he walked off the job. Six days later he could only be lured back as president. The car loans remained dear to him. Years later, he pedaled a kiddy car into a board meeting to dramatize his love of quick turnover in the car-loan business.

Lane always linked bank and civic activities. If you lend a man money, he said, the only way to make sure he will pay you back is to make sure he is able to pay. When it looked as if South Georgia tobacco farmers could not meet their notes because of a dying crop, Lane assembled a train of tank cars filled with water, and carried liquid manna down through the dying fields. Then he financed, out of what could be saved from the first loans, an irrigation system that paid returns to the bank over many years. Lane used to say a banker who could boast he never lost a dime just didn’t know how to use dimes. You ought to lose a dime to make a dollar.

And no one could doubt that he made dollars. The drawling South has its fast-talkers, and they tend toward the cash piety of “Reverend Ike.” Mills Lane was out in his own bank lobby greeting people as often as he could be. He always answered his own phone, and often answered it with his battle call: “It’s a wonderful world. Can I sell you some money?” He was one of the first theatrical bankers. When he offered “Instant Money,” he said, “Why should a person be able to walk into a department store and charge hundreds of dollars worth of goods if he cannot come into a bank and take out the same cash equivalent on his signature?”

He joined shrewd dealing with folksy drama—sheep in the bank lobby to encourage investments in Georgia textiles; a re-enactment of the St. Valentine’s day massacre to talk about “killing” costs. He was the con man as cute ingratiator—“Let’s do bidness” he would babytalk highrollers. He sent marked C and S helicopters flitting about the city, rushing checks and cash at a breakneck pace to suggest the pace of the town’s urgencies. “Resurgens” says one Atlanta bank’s emblem, and the South’s promise to rise again seemed redeemed in the Mills Lane Atlanta of the Sixties.

But this Second Coming was in for a Second Sinking. In 1971, Lane retired early, at age fifty-nine, after a heart attack. His young successor, Richard Kattell, seems to have picked up Lane’s own standard. A rumpled and friendly hard worker, Kattell answered his own phone, prowled the lobby, leaped on and off the helicopters. Lane had given out ties with the “It’s a Wonderful World” slogan. Kattell wore a special gold tie pin with the tongue-twisting slogan YCDBSOYA. You were supposed to ask, so he could tell you it meant: “You can’t do business sitting on your rump.”

But the 1974 recession hit Atlanta’s overheated economy with particular force. Land bidding had gone up so fast that no return on it was valuable except a shopping center—and there were no new small businesses to fill the centers up. Banks were cutting back just as Lance lost his race for governor and came to town as the new Mills Lane, big and jolly and ready to take risks in the worst times as well as the best. He became president of the NBG (National Bank of Georgia). It made sense for Lance’s bank to pick up some of the big money now that C and S was giving harder terms. Lance wanted to set up his own holding company as Lane had; and the market was good if he had the cash for it. He decided to take advantage of a slow market as if he had the resources for quick trading. Maybe the rules he played by would become the rules of the game, at least for him.

Lance might have carried it off, if he had stayed and played a concentrated game; if he had kept his own shaky financial ambitions separate from this fast play; if he had not mixed his own political ambitions, and those of Jimmy Carter, with his bank expansion plans. But those were too many ifs in a situation where the addition of one if more was foolish. After all, the bank plan was iffy in itself. Lance had bought subsidiary banks over the slow price others were offering, expanded his bank’s out-of-state activity, and stocked NBG with political officers in twice the number expected of a bank his size.

Lance looked at first like another Lane. Lance had tethered bulls at his bank, to equal Lane’s sheep in the lobby. But Lane lived carefully. When he did, at last, buy a sensational yacht, he sacrificed his beloved antique car collection to the purchase. Lance, by contrast, wanted everything at once. He came to Atlanta still jumping ahead of and around the huge personal debts he ran up in his 1974 campaign for governor. He instantly added to these the big loans from New York and Chicago that let him buy (with his partners) controlling stock in NBG. His bank having loaned $4.5 million to Jimmy Carter’s peanut business, he was also helping Carter’s presidential campaign. And all the while Lance was expanding his own scale of living—a private plane, four grand homes in Georgia alone, gaudy parties. Any one of his risky lines of effort could have been salvaged, if he had worked at it. But each put the other in jeopardy. The three drunks were not so much stumbling forward as dragging each other down. Lance did not heed one of the maxims Lane quoted from his father: “Tend thy own house and thy house will tend thee.” Lance was too busy buying new houses to tend any one of them.

It all happened overnight—‘74, his expensive campaign for governor; ‘75, the Atlanta bank presidency and purchase, on borrowed funds; ‘76, bank expansion and the Carter campaign; ‘77, the jump to Washington. He was not ready for any of those four additions to his own precarious financial state. Yet each seemed to promise unlimited opportunity, while draining his day-to-day resources. Each was a mistake, in context; and none greater than the move to Washington. Carter asked a man in mid-trapeze-swing if he could walk away on air, and the man answered “Sure.” Carter obviously did not know how close Lance had been shaving his multiple commitments when he offered him a job in the administration. But Lance either knew or should have known; and he made his crowning mistake when he went to Washington—walking off from his multiple juggled balls, expecting them never to fall.

  1. *

    The best study of Lance’s 1974 campaign, published well before Lance’s Senate confirmation, was written by Howell Raines. It appeared in Campaign Money, edited by Herbert Alexander (Free Press, 1976), pp. 187-225. Raines called Lance’s campaign a “classic picture” of intertwined business and political manipulation.

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