YOU'VE SEEN Bert Lance before. At first you can't remember where. Then it comes to you. It was somewhere in the Middle East in a market place. He was dressed in a djellaba and turban standing behind his stall. He was trying to sell you a camel. Cheap. And you were in the process of haggling with him until it occurred to you that you didn't actually need a camel. So you bought a rug from him instead. Very Cheap. He was losing money, he was going to go to the poor house. His family was going to starve because of the low price he was giving you. His eyes were dancing as he rubbed his hands together in mock despair. You paid him the money, much more than the rug was worth. He beamed and blessed you as you walked away. Strangely, you felt good, even though you knew you'd been had.
Bert Lance is Jimmy Carter's director of the Office of Management and Budget, a job Carter believes is one of the most important in government.
Everybody wonders what Jimmy Carter sees in Bert Lance, big country boy from Calhoun, Ga. Oh sure, he married the boss' daughter, LaBelle, when they were both 19 and he become a teller in the bank. Then when LaBelle's father died 13 years later he became presidient of the bank and incresed its assets in two years from $240 million to $415 million, that was impressive. But then there are a lot of successful bankers around. What's Bert Lance got that others haven't?
Bert Lance is shrewd, ambitious, devoted to his work, successful, productive and understands people. And he's smart. That's the most important part.
Part of being smart is that Bert Lance doesn't particularly care if you know it. He's not too crazy about all those words. He'd rather have you think he was a good old country boy until you get hom with your rug.
He sits in an easy chair in his Executive Office Building office, high-ceilinged, elegantly furnished. He rubs his hands together. He's been in politics. He knows how to give an interview. His eyes dance as he says, "I sure appreciate you folks taking the time . . ."
Successful? "I happen to truly believe this: Success is a journey and not a destination. I don't see I'll ever arrive at the point where I'll say, 'Lance old boy, you've arrived at success.' There's no question about it. Once you get to the point where you've arrived at a station called success you get complacent and lethargic. Those goals you set keep changing. But it's not a ruthless sort of thing."
Ambitious? "Well, I've always tried to set some kind of goal. I want to be better than anybody in the banking business and when I ran the Highway Department in Georgia I wanted it to be the best in the country. And of course," he says, looking very earnest, "I have a high sense of public service." He looks up for a moment. Then says, "I know you think this sounds like a naive statement but all of us have been given a lot. And so a lot is expected in return.
"That's part of the bounty we've been blessed with." Not to mention the financial regards involved. He smiles and shrugs in an offhand manner. "I like to live comfortably."
Smart? "I don't know how smart I am. I just try to be what I am. I hope I'm modest. I think that's a desirable trait."
Shrewd? That stops him. "Something's wrong with the implications of that word. I like to think I'm good in dealing with the problems of people. In that sense, I'm shrewd. In the best sense of the word. But in a multiple choice I wouldn't pick that word. What word would I pick? I knew I was getting myself in trouble." He throws his head back and laughs. Then more seriously, "I hope I'm open, frank and candid."
Devoted to his work? "Oh yeah, I like to work hard. It's just something I'm used to. I enjoy working hard. I usually get about four hours' sleep a night. I could get by with less if I wanted to. The older I get the more settled I get, habit wise. I don't need a lot of sleep. I think sleep's a habit. Just like a lot of things." His other main habit, he says, is "work. I generally work all day, come home and eat, then go upstairs and work until midnight. I have to read all this stuff they put before me, I used to tell folks it takes me longer to do things than other folks. They seem to get by on shorter hours."
And he wrenches his hands in mock despair. LaBelle: Butterflies
It is hard not to deal in symbols with LaBelle Lance.
On her coffee table sits a crystall bowl of dying camellias brought from Georgia to remind her of home.
"They can't bear the cold," she says wistfully, rubbing her pale slender hands together in the 60-degree house.
She smiles, almost beseechingly, and fingers the gold heart that hangs from a chain around her neck.
"Hearts?" she says, looking down at it. "Why, hearts and butterflies and four leaf clovers I've always loved. I still get down on my knees and collect four leaf clovers. Do you? My house in Atlanta is called Butterfly Manna. The butterfly is for my special symbol, they symbolize fragility and happiness, and manna because it's a joyful gift from heaven . . . I have a special deep faith, you know. I don't know whether a lot of people know it . . . and I just knew my symbol would butterflies from when I was a girl. But I guess you think that's so sentimental."
Her soft Southern voice has alilt to it when she speaks, her sentences end on an up note as though she is hoping for approval, her long dark hair, pulled back and hanging in curls down her back, belies the tiny lines which are beginning to show in her face, around her eyes. There is a girlish, even childlike manner about her which makes you want to give her a present or candy, to tell her she's pretty and see her face light up.
"I have butterflies all over my house in Georgia," she says. "I even have a butterfly oriental rug. Butterflies mean immortality in a Christian sense. Hearts are very special to me, too. Bert gives me a lot of things with hearts on them. Of course, I love hearts for love. But you can't have hearts with butterflies. You have to have joy and life everlasting."
Next to a silk chair in her traditional living room in Georgetown, sitting on the baby blue wall-to-wall carpeting, is a large hourglass which substitutes for an end table. "There's a little inscription on it," she says, brightening.
"It's about the sands of time and love. Time is precious to us. We've always felt that way."
And regardless of the fact that Jimmy Carter instructs the members of his administration to go home early and spend time with their families, the Lahces have very little time together.
"When he's here, he's working or catching up with mail," she says. "All our lives he's worked after supper - I guess I'll have to start saying dinner now - I have a study for hom upstairs.He works there at night. When he comes home he always brings stacks of papers and we've got boxes full of things." The Lances will usually have an hour or so for dinner before he disappears to work.
"He doesn't talk about the office," she says. "He's very calm, very quiet. In fact, we have a closeness without a lot of conversation. I don't ever feel left out but he certainly doesn't tell me anything I don't need to know and I don't push for things I don't need to know and shouldn't be told."
When he goes upstairs she is alone again, as she has been most of the day. That is the end of their time together. "I'll read," she says, "Or I'll study.I read a lot of inspirational things. I just enjoy knowing he's home."
And she enjoys thinking about their most special day together which is, she says, Valentine's Day.
This interview has fallen a few days before Valentine's Day, but she had not the slightest doubt what the day will bring. "We'll have a special time together," she says excitedly, "because I really believe in that. He'll give me an old fashioned box of Valentine's candy and some flowers. I really love that."
LaBelle and Bert Lance have known each other since the sixth grade when his father, a teacher, moved to Calhoun, Ga., and her father was president of the local bank. LaBelle even remembers the first present Bert gave her. "It was when I was in the eighth grade and he gave me an Eveninging in Paris set with cologne and lipstick and rouge. It was in a very fancy silver and blue box and it cost $8.75."
And she says he even chooses a lot of her clothes for her now. "He looks in the paper and he chooses what he thinks are right for me. I might be old fashioned. He's much more fashioned conscious."
"I'm proud," she says. "Sometimes we throw marriages away. I'm just grateful my husband still loves me and gives me presents." Bert: Social Gadfly
Hamilton Jordon said recently that if he had to pick one who in the Carter administration would be the "social Henry Kissinger" it would be Bert Lance.
When you first meet Bert Lance, especially if it's at a party, you recognize immediately that there is the most gregarious, sociable person there. He's all over the place, glad-handing, patting people on the back, laughing, telling jokes, often on himself. He seems to be just an old easy-going, fun-loving guy.
But just let someone of importance walk into the room and Lance will excuse himself, say he has to go mix and mingle and there he'll be in a flash. And like his wife, LaBelle, he bemoans the fact that they don't have the time to socialize the way they did in Atlanta.
"I like people," he says. "I enjoy going out, seeing people, finding out what's going on. But it's been really difficult to go out here. I've tried to restrict our social life to the things we have to do. Then you don't get carried away. Once you start accepting it gets to the point where you can't turn any of it off and then you just can't get anything done." But he does understand. "It's part of communication," he says.
Though he seems to find communication with others important, he admits to a feeling that when he gets home he simply needs to be quiet.
"I talk all day," he says, "So every once in a while it's nice to be quiet. To listen." He shifts in his seat. "When you are living with somebody you try to be concerned with the quality of time rather than the quantity.
"I try to do that."
Now Valentine's Day had just passed and Lance allowed as how he had given LaBelle a box of candy and some roses. "That's what I've been doing for a long time. Yeah, we've always, we like to treat special days as special days. We had an omelette last night for Valentine's Day. She gave me, a silver ingot which said "Be My Valentine.'"
Does he remember the first present he ever gave her? He shifts again in his seat. This clearly is not his favorite conversation. He looks up briefly, as though hoping his secretary will come in and save him.
"The first present, hmm. You're really putting me to the test." He brightens. "Well, I was working at Fites Drug Store in Calhoun. I've always worked, you know. I was getting 10 cents an hour. I was about 13 then. And I bought her an Evening in Paris set of perfume. He is triumphant. "You didn't think I'd remember that. Good gracious alive, it took all my paycheck."
Bert Lance is not sure, though, whether he could be called romantic. He looks puzzled. "I'm not sure what that includes."
He is clearly not anxious to discuss his private life, though he will say of his wife, "she's cute girl," and I'm right proud of her." He says he is not as interested in butterflies as she is. "Butterflies? That's her thing. She's interested in butterflies."
He seems almost unaware of her loneliness here in Washington, with him working all the time and her four children away from her. "Lonely," he'll say. "Oh yeah. I guess it's hard. And later, "Yeah, I worry about her . . . It's a big change for anybody to go through that process. Well, I guess we'll be spending a lot of weekends in Georgia. We're trying to do that. I can take my work down there. And I've got commitments . . ."
It is interesting that so many of the men in the Carter administration who espouse women's rights choose to live with the traditional husband-wife roles, but Lance doesn't see any problems with that. "The opportunities ought to be there for the individual choice and decisions," he says. "It's not right for me to make those choices. Women need to be involved. They have a lot to offer. I encourage that." LaBelle: Alone
Again the images come to mind, the early Nora in "A Doll's House," both Laura and Amanda in "The Glass Menagerie." At 45, LaBelle Lance seems not only not to reject protection and shielding but also to welcome it, hardly a popular position for women in these times. "My purpose is to help Bert and to be a good Christian and if I can set a good example in those two things that will be my highest calling."
And she will also say, "I consider myself liberated. It's give or take on both sides. I feel very fulfilled. I think women should have equal rights. I've never had to prove liberation.
"Bert's always been very generous and I just work around his schedule. I want to and I love him. He always manages our money. I know if I write a check there will be enough money in the bank. Some women still feel they need to prove a situation or they must proclaim something. I haven't been in that position of being on a soapbox."
She says she has never worked in her life except to do some substitute teaching when she was much younger.
LaBelle Lance is a woman who is truly happy when she has her children around now now in Washington she is without any of them.
She has four sons, from 25 to 15, all of whom are in Georgia. The 17-year-old chose to stay in school in Atlanta, the 15-year-old chose to stay in Calhoun.
She is very lonely. "I think that's the saddest part of my life now," she admits. "Hopefully, though, we'll get to go home on weekends. But you have to become at peace with yourself. I can be elated and I can be very sad."
She tries bravely to convince herself and anyone who will listen that "I am happy wherever Bert is," but she talks so longingly of Calhoun that it is hard to imagine her being happy anywhere else, even at "Butterfly Manna" in Atlanta.
And she says she never really had any close friends in Atlanta. "Oh, we had campaign friends and bank friends, not real close. I'm sort of at the age and stage where I stay closest to my family." And she will smile and say, "Anyone who wants to be my friend, can. I need all th friends I can get."
Interestingly, although Bert Lance is probably the man closest to Carter in Washington except for Hamilton Jordan, Labelle Lance is not particularly close to Rosalynn. "I think we have similar families whether we're close or not. We respect each other and have love for each other." She says she would be delighted to help Rosalynn on any of her projects - "if she asks me, but I doubt if she will. She didn't call on me in the state though she knew I'd do anything she asked. I believe in them that much . . . but we're just not that close friends. I don't know that I have those kinds of friends, the coffee-dropping-by friends. I talk to my family. My mother and I are close. I'm really very private. I usually tell Bert when things bother me. He's a good one to sympathize or understand. He's a good at making me see the other side of a situation.
"I'm very quick to talk and express my feelings. For a long time I felt I must contain myself. But it just wasn't me." She looks down at her rings a bit shyly and smiles. "Anyway, Bert seems to like me." Bert: Confidence
One thing you'd have to say about Bert Lance, the man has confidence in himself.
"Maybe my philosophy is not what it ought to be," he says, "but I don't worry about things I can't do anything about. Once I've made a decision about something I don't think about it any more. I have confidence in my ability to get things done. There's no sense in feeling inadequate if everything doesn't turn out right. I guess a lot of people have got a better basis than I have, they have a lot more educational background. But I've been out in the real world 26 years, seeing people be successful, seeing people fail, and in between. I've always been able to learn from people who are older than I am, to listen to what they say so I don't have to relive the bad experience they've had."
Like his wife, LaBelle, and his boss, Jimmy Carter, Lance attributes his confidence to his religion.
He knows that being religious is not exactly the driving force among those in Washington's social circles, that it is often looked down upon, and he says, "It doesn't disturb me one iota.
"I have a lot of deficiencies," he says. "I'm not superhuman. I've got the same problems everybody else does.But one of the benefits of having a deep religious faith is that you can say those things work for the best. Like when I ran for governor and lost. It hurts. You don't like to get beat. I'm a competitor and winning's more fun than losing. You have a lot of blows. That's part of living. The important thing is how you deal with the problem, whether you react to it in a calm, reasonable way."
Bert Lance is a rather passionless man in that respect. He is calm and reasonable. He is the kind of person you would not want to fail, the kind of person you could feel you might bring your problems to.
He is very dark-skinned with coal black hair, flashing black eyes, and a smile always nearby. He is enormous, not only tall but fleshy as well. He listens intently but you can tell his mind is always on something else and he gets very impatient if the questions in an interview don't particularly interest him. He is most alive when he talks about his work, his job, Carter, his attitudes about people, but only in a professional capacity.
"I don't like mediocrity," he will say. "I think people ought to try to live up to their potental. I think I'm fair but those that don't, I get down on them, people who've lost sight of it. There are a lot of people like that."
In that sense he is like Jimmy Carter, a man who also has little tolerance for people who don't fulfill their potential. And the two are friends. Though LaBelle says that the families are not friends, Lance and Carter clearly have a very sound working relationships and Carter obviously trusts and respects him. Lance, after all, was Carter's banker in Atlanta and it was Lance's bank that loaned Carter several million dollars for his peanut business.
Lance seems very matter-of-fact about his close relationship with the President, very unimpressed with his access. Yet mention that it might be taken away, as often happens in Washington politics, and he bristles.
"If I want to see the President either I go there or he comes here. I don't ever hesitate to call him about anything.
"I would be concerned about losing access but I would be concerned about it for the job, not for any psychic aspects or what do you call it."
He says he and Carter are "old tennis buddies" and that he hopes to be playing tennis often on the White House court.
"Carter's got a superb intellect," he says. "I'd like to think I did. It's not for me to say. But in comparison to him I'm way down the ladder.
"If I had a tough judgmental call I'd go to him. I have that sort of relationship with the President. Not as much now, of course, but I have that ease. He likes to tease me. I obviously am very teasable. He tease me about anything, everything. About being a banker.About looking like a lumberjack.
There has been speculation that Bert Lance and Hamilton Jordan are involved in a power struggle for the President's attention but Lance explains earnestly that, "that show how little people know. Hamilton is 14 years younger than I am. I feel as close to him as if he were my age. He's the best in the world at what he does." What does he do? Pause. "Well, he thinks. He makes judgmental decisions about things we are all concerned about.We're just fortunate as a country that Hamilton is there. He's got all the attributes that are needed. They'll never develop a feud between me and Hamilton."
You believe him. He is talking about a fellow camel trader. LaBelle: Faith
It would be easy for those who saw LaBelle Lance at a party to mistake her for the traditional Southern belle; the rhine-stone tiara in her hair, the sweetheart necklines of velvet, the vivacious laughter, the giddy socializing. It would be easy at first glance, too, to tack her with the cliche of the Southern woman: the soft exterior with the spine of steel. But LaBelle Lance has little confidence on her own. If it weren't for her deep religious convictions, which are very real, she probably would not have been able to survive in the tough, competitive, often cruel world of banking and politics, nor in the world of Atlanta society of which she never really was a part.
She apologizes for herself over and over: "I used to say, 'Oh, dear, I don't take very good pictures,' but now I won't say that any more"; "I'm sorry to keep repeating stories"; "I'm afraid I don't express myself very well"; "A lot of things make you feel unworthy and inadequate"; "I try to read the current newspapers and magazines and synopses of books but I really am a slow, tedious reader"; "I think I'm very quick to talk a lot; One of my worst faults would be my tongue, I'm impatient and say things I wish I hadn't said"; "Bert liked 'The Man From La Mancha' about Don Quixote, he's really quick about getting things but I had to see it a couple of times to get it"; "Things with deep philosophical meanings for me are sort of tedious . . . And I'm not the greatest fan of opera. But I sort of like 'Madama Butterfly.' Anything with butterflies in it means something"; and finally, at the end, when she read from her religious poetry out loud she says, "I apologise for taking you time, thank you letting me read to you."
There is something so touching, so fragile about her anxious graciousness, her desire to please. And her open acknowledgement of her need for religious support.
"I learned I couldn't cope with anything just on my own. I really can't.
"My faith sustains me. I know wherever I am, God is there and all's right with the world. He's going to make me secure. It's when I try to count on my own strength over God's strength that I can't cope. Very often we think we can do unto ourselves and we can't. If you trust in God everything works for the best."
This religious feeling of hers preoccupies her thoughts and her time, mainly because she has so little else in her life at the moment. It is not the kind of thing that will go over big in Washington circles, hardly a compelling topic for the local social set. But for LaBelle Lance, her religion is so engrained in her that she can't imagine anyone not believing.
She has no qualms about talking about it, says she hopes to start a religious seminar for Washington political wives, teaches "Revelations" to senior citizens at her neighborhood Dumbarton church and says of potential ridicule from the social set, "I hope that won't happen to us. I can expose them to it. Most people have a sense of Christ and I hope to share my feelings with people."
She has already begun by having 2,000 copies of her book, "A Story from God" by "His Servant LaBelle," privately printed up and she has sent them to friends as Christmas cards and her new Washington acquaintances since she has poem, one of hundreds she wrote last year."Last year after Christmas," she explains, "I wanted to write thoughts every day for at least a year. I've really been blessed in the ability to write some of the poetry down. It was a disciplined thing. 'God take my mind and use it.' Bert calls it 'deep yearnings of your soul.' I haven't written since last Jan. 7. I knew I didn't have to. I had completed a promise for a year's writing.
"I quit because I felt, well, not that I was running dry . . . because God never runs dry, but I didn't want to do any more, I needed a rest for getting this ready before I put more down. I've done one for Christmas and one for Easter, "The Butterfly of Love' and the 'Dove of Peace."
She asks if she might show it, runs to the cabinet and brings out an enormous pile of minuscripts. She asks if she might read one of her religious poems aloud. She does and as she does she comes alive for the first time. Her cheeks flush, her eyes mist over and her voice takes on an animated, almost excited tone. When she finishes she sits quietly for a moment, then says, "Thank you for letting me read that to you. I haven't read it since I came to Washington." And then it's as if the energy is drained from her as she returns to her polite conversation. Bert: The Banker
Bert Lance is not flattered by being called a political technician. Nor would he say he was an ideologue. "A lot of people don't deviate. I think I'm a pragmatic sort of fellow. There's more than one way to cross the street, more ways than one of getting there. I have a certain basic ideology, though. Getting people to do things."
He's good at that, he says.
"It's sort of my experience and background" he says, "listening to people and ideas, seeing them succeed and fall. I guess simply put, and I know you're not interested in simple things, but being a banker causes you to be a realist. If you loan money you know sometimes you're going to lose it and you're going to make some. You can't have a better experience than to learn about people that way. People are what make the world go around. If you don't have the understanding of people and you've got all the attributes known to man then, well, then you couldn't have very many attributes.
'I've got a good capacity for names and faces. People's names are important to them. I learned to remember people's names when I worked in the note cage at the bank."
Lance says that he thinks banking was the right profession for him. He likes it, he says, because of the risks. "You measure the risks. But really, the payoff comes in the ability to create jobs. But probably to you that sounds like naivete of the highest order."
Bert Lance is a very sane, normal person. It would be surprising if he turned out to be anything else. The idea of Lance seeing a psychiatrist is almost ludicrous. He thinks so, too. He laughs beartily for the first time during the interview. "Now you're getting me in so deep I don't know where I am. But I'll tell. I'm no psychologist. But if I went to one I'd confuse him so bad he'd end up on the couch having me help him." LaBelle: Fading Camellias When Bert and LaBelle Lance lived in Atlanta they were known for giving lavish parties at their huge plantation. And they often invited guests to visit their summer place at Sea Island as well. They enjoy going out and socializing and are more gregarious probably than most people in this new administration. And for LaBelle it means not being at home alone. She asks what gregarious means and says, "Yes, I am, but I enjoy a quiet time, too."
But she was so looking forward to the social life in Washington. "The friendships I hope to make are literally every race, color and creed. You need all kinds," she says. "The day of the White House reception I met all the ambassadors and their wives or spouses or what ever you call them. I'm going to enjoy knowing people from places I studied in geography.
Yet she is disappointed about the outlook of her future. "We are looking forward to entertaining in Washington. But we've had to cancel things so often. Now Bert can't worry about the pressure of social parties. Now we are going to have to confine our social life to state and official things because of his job. We tried but every time it seems we had to leave early or arrive late and that's not fair on the hostess . . . anyway, we love to be alone together. And besides, our dining room here isn't big enough for more than six or eight. (They are renting the rather large Georgetown house of socialite Yolande Fox.) In Georgia we did large-scale entertaining."
Now she is without servants. "Goodness, I hope I'll be able to wash coffee cups and make dinner for two," she says. And she says, too, that though she likes having a lot of big houses and nice things, "I don't know how you say this in the midst of plenty but I can do without them. I can go back to denim. That's faith again. Bert says, "To whom much is given, much is expected.'"
She glances at her watch and places her teacup on the coffee table by the fading camellias. The interview is over. She has her religion class at the Church next door.
"I feel very honored that people want to take the time to interview e," she says. "I'm not Bert. I'm not seeking publicity. I think the press is just as important as any other part of our society. And if it helps our nation then I'm happy to do it. If Bert's going to help manage your money then you want to know the integrity behind him."