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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.

His own bank’s board resented this decision. Lance had been president for less than two years, had spread the bank’s resources, and had not paid off his own loans for taking control. One member of the board, Alvin Cates, said: “When we interviewed him for the job of president, he made it clear to us that he was prepared to devote his future to making NBG successful.” Charlie Kirbo, staying in Atlanta, is powerful by his ties to Washington. Lance, with his assets sold or in a blind trust, could not help the bank bluff through some of the riskier things he had dreamed up and could not pursue to a conclusion.

So the board called back a former president, Robert Guyton, who had resigned before Lance’s time. With assurances that he was boss this time, Guyton began a severe retrenching, dismissing Lance’s busy expansion team of political advisers. He wrote off $2.3 million in bad real estate debts and canceled the quarterly dividend. That is what sent Lance’s bank stock plummeting, so that he had to ask for an extension on the divestiture requirements of Carter’s regime. And that in turn is what made the Senate begin to reconsider the easy ride it gave Lance through his confirmation hearings.

Lance probably cannot oust Guyton, now, even if he retains the stock he is currently trying to sell. I asked Guyton if he was appointed on terms that precluded Lance’s return. Without answering directly what he called an “inappropriate” question, Guyton said he was “dedicated to stay with the bank whatever the circumstances.” The White House tried to limit the Lance controversy to matters of illegal or unethical conduct, applying rules of evidence as if this were a criminal proceeding. It is a neat maneuver—on the one hand, you call for rules of criminal evidence, then you denounce any discussion of Lance’s shortcomings as aimed at criminal conduct. One by one, Lance might defend most of his actions, the shifts and near-squeaks and precipicedancing. Faced with the most damaging matters, where his “good word” is in question, he pleads inadvertence (easy to do because he had so many balls in the air)—e.g., he says he did not notice that he put up the same collateral to a second bank, though the first one was sending him dunning letters for the dividends on that stock-collateral.

But Lance’s acts must be judged by the main political rule, as worse than wrong—they were dumb. He thought no tomorrow could catch up with his hair-breadth yesterdays. He risked various properties, in a rising scale, until he risked a whole administration on the permissiveness of his creditors and the public. His bank purchase was balanced precariously on his gubernatorial campaign; and then he balanced Carter’s campaign and his own Washington job on those overtoppling bases. He left his own bank in trouble, and damaged the reputation of Atlanta banking in general—all to make arguments, in Washington, for sound budgeting and careful bookkeeping! It was the classic case of a drunk preaching abstinence. And he counted on his staggering partners to keep him standing—Atlanta could not afford to call him on his debts, and Carter would stave off threats by his mere position. The tipplers might reel, but never fall.

It is understandable that Carter did not see through Lance’s bluff. He was the prime bluffee. But he had the right (and maybe the duty) to feel betrayed, precisely as McGovern was betrayed by Eagleton. The issue was not whether the subordinate did something wrong to begin with. Eagleton very properly sought medical care. Lance, before the Senate and House hearings began, was not clearly indictable on any of his breakneck deals. But both men misrepresented themselves as “safe” for appointment to very sensitive spots, and gave as little information as possible to the leaders who went out on a limb for them.

It is far less easy to defend Carter’s long protectiveness of Lance. Faced with good reason to suspect hidden truths (whether criminal or not does not matter), he did not—like Eisenhower, faced with the stories of Nixon’s slush fund—pursue the facts himself and remain judiciously above the fray. Instead, Carter overreacted to the damaging comptroller’s report, saying it made him “proud” of Lance—proud of over fifty irregularities, questionable practices, “unsound” banking use of overdrafts and correspondent accounts. Attacks on Lance were taken as attacks on Carter. Jody Powell Ron-Zieglered serious questions into a mockery of “third-rate-burglary” responses when he discounted the story of half-million-dollar overdrafts, juggled accounts, and reusable collateral.

In this way Carter’s first crisis seemed to confirm all prior guesses about his private weak points. He has been, in the process, simultaneously provincial and amateur and pious and stubborn. Lance conned him; so he doggedly maintained, for his own reputation’s sake, that Lance couldn’t be a con man. The danger with an “outsider” campaign like Carter’s is amateurishness. Bright aides like Jordan and Powell could learn the mechanics of a campaign: youth is an advantage where the main peril is fighting last year’s war. But it takes larger and longer experience to know the difference between substance and bluff—between, say, Mills Lane and Bert Lance—in the mingled areas of politics and financial speculation. Carter thought he had, in Lance, his one adult and equal who could talk to businessmen as their equal if not better.

Regional pride was involved. Carter came to feel that Lance had to be as sound, in his own way, as Carter was—Lance challenging Wall Street from small-town Georgia origins, just as Jimmy challenged Washington. Lance seemed to combine the best of Carter’s own two worlds—a hick who could outplay the city boys. But Carter would not face up to the obverse of that trick’s impact: its brilliance, if it works, is offset by equal weights of risked indignity if it doesn’t. What if the good old boy got took—what then?

That contingency remained, perilously, unimaginable for Jimmy Carter—as critics said his own loss of the presidency would have been unmanageable for him because unimaginable. One of the pressures working at the back of Carter’s mind was that regional sensitivity voiced by the Atlanta Constitution‘s chief political columnist, Bill Shipp, when the attack on Lance began: “There is a feeling in much of Washington that somehow a fellow from the mountains of North Georgia simply is not able—and should not be allowed—to have a decisive role in guiding the government of the United States.” That is the feeling Carter had run up against in his own race, or imagined he was running up against. Shipp later backed off, asked Lance to come back home for his own good; but Carter hung onto Lance, harming his friend as well as himself every minute he did so. The interlinked stumble was no longer a matter of standing together, but of standing alone or falling together. The Atlanta establishment sobered to that fact with surprising speed, and lost its earlier pride in Lance. It no longer backs him. Carter was far too slow in sobering to the same realization.

The proud man from a soiled background develops a special prickliness, a quirky honor amid compromise. That could be seen in Truman (Carter’s favorite president). Retaining his personal honesty as one of Pendergast’s functionaries, Truman made his own integrity exist as a thing apart; and then, illogically, thought it should reflect back on his associates in so far as they were his associates. He was better than his surroundings, and that fact should stand warrant for his surroundings! I.F. Stone indelibly described all the Wimpies who trooped into the White House with Harry Vaughan. Yet Truman took each attack on Vaughan as a personal affront.

Carter, from soil stained with racism and provincial southern ways, has similarly taken each criticism of Lance as an attack on him. Add that Lance (unlike the shrewder Charlie Kirbo, who “tends his house”) has shared fox holes with Carter, as a member of his Georgia administration, as a candidate defending that administration’s record, and as a member of his Washington family. Add that Carter designated Lance as his Georgia successor—with some of that displaced parental pride bestowed on such designees (e.g., Eisenhower’s for Bob Anderson, or Nixon’s for John Connally).

Add small-town-Georgia shared background, and similarly close family ties. Add, most of all, piety. Lance blends overt evangelism with business as Carter blends it with politics. These men have prayed and read the Bible together. Anyone who has seen Harold Hughes rush to defend a “brother” like Chuck Colson knows what strong ties these can be. Visitors to the Lance farm at Calhoun are forced to tour and admire his wife’s chapel building there. One such visitor told me: “It’s uncomfortable as hell. What do you do? Are you supposed to start praying or meditating? Or just stand around saying it’s real nice?” (Mrs. Lance takes down poetic dictation from God, bad spelling and all. A Georgia journalist, considering the results, told me, “God-damn but God’s style has been deterioratin’ of late—and just when we could have used some of the good stuff He used to write: And the sea returned to his strength when the morning appeared.”)

Lance hit Carter on his blind side, where all his blind spots are accumulated—his region, religion, judgment of friends, efficiency, pride in management, and reluctance to admit mistakes. Lance was half hero to him, and half crony. He was the part of Atlanta he had taken captive, and the part of littletown Georgia he knew from the outset—part of his roots he could take to Washington and never be ashamed of in the most sophisticated company. Lance’s was a success that made Carter’s success less an anomaly. Lance was a bit of a clown, a valet to whom his leader was a hero—but something of a mentor, too; a Kirbo who would travel, a Georgia teammate who was not a kid.

The White House’s defense of Lance first emphasized ethics rather than intellect. That emphasis had special meaning for Jimmy Carter. Protective as he is of a virtuous reputation, he is edgier yet at any hint that he might be dumb. His relations with the press have always been sourest on both sides when Carter felt his intellectual inferiors were treating him as an inferior. The charge that hurts most to a man who has been helped by a pose of country-boy naïveté is the charge of country-boy stupidity. That is why the thing that will rankle with Carter, always, is not that Lance got took, that he overreached himself. Carter, so shrewd and deft behind the ambush of peanut farmer hedges, will forever resent the knowledge that the ambush became in this instance a trap—the knowledge that he was the trickster’s victim, that the “took” good old boy took him.

Bert Lance is not important in himself. He overshot himself in Washington—as he would have done, somewhere down the road, in Atlanta. Lance matters politically only as he shows the regional flaws still left in Carter, the failure to graduate up from a local figure to a national one. The political significance of Lance is easily put: Does he end Carter’s political education, or further it? A big question, considering the tasks Carter must graduate up to, and the serious misjudgments he made (and defended too long) with regard to Lance. After all, he tried to keep Lance on when bank practices were themselves a sore point, the focus of understandable resentments—internationally, because of a rickety loan structure arising from “recycled” Arab oil money to weak third-world nations; regionally, because of New York banks, which tried to dump city securities while pretending to support them; and nationally, as cozy arrangements for overdrafts and favored inter-bank deals throughout the US were revealed by the Lance affair. Lance became a walking parable of many things Carter must oppose and try to remedy—and he kept thinking he could mount his opposition not only despite Lance but, incredibly, through Lance!

He tried to keep him in a post as important as it was exposed. The Office of Management and the Budget, a Nixon creation for the reorganizing of government, is resented by the departments it oversees, and is subject to bureaucratic infighting when its director becomes a political cripple. In this case, it is feckless to say Lance would draw on presidential vigor when that is just what he was draining away through his own lesion-spot in the administration.

Those were the issues still waiting resolution when I left Atlanta recently—driving out to the airport past Braves Stadium, built with Mills Lane money in the Sixties. Lane put up the cash before there was a team to play there, or city authorization for the project. He took a bet on the future, and there the result sits like a space saucer tethered on white milliped struts. It touched down lightly, like butterfly manna, and the paint is peeling from the struts now. The trouble with manna is simply put. It melts. Bert Lance didn’t know that. More important for the rest of us, he conned Jimmy Carter into thinking it would last through the night. It never does.

LANCE’S TIGHT REIN

…fundamentally, Lance is a self-proclaimed fiscal conservative while Mondale’s opinions still reflect his training in the Hubert Humphrey school of liberalism. ‘I respect the Vice President’s view,’ Lance said. ‘He happens to feel strongly that in certain areas the way to deal with problems is through the expenditure of federal moneys. My view is that if you bring about consistency and predictability in government and hold a tight rein on the deficit problem, the private sector will supply the additional revenues to do the same things he wants to accomplish through government.”’

—quoted by Robert Shogan in Promises to Keep: Carter’s First
Hundred Days
(T.Y. Crowell, 1977)

  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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