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 …

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