When the lights go out and blacks in Brooklyn snatch cameras and TVs out of storage, the sociological defense is profit on their behalf. It is never used in cases like Bert Lance's. No extenuating circumstances for jovial basso profundo Bert. With him it's a question of did he do right or did he do wrong, and, if he did wrong, hang the s.o.b. out to dry and don't tell us it was his environment which made him do it.
There's a certain fairness in that. If you have a little money laid away you can afford morals, and if you have a little more money socked in the bank - not one of Bert's - you're rich enough to have developed a fullblown set of ethics. It serves justice to set a higher and more rigid standard for rich folks than for poor people, but making Bert Lance the centerpiece of a moral auto-da-fe also draws our minds away from lines of disturbing thought about ourselves.
Black kids, grow up in the ghetto watching television whereon is displayed the gadgets and convenient luxuries of white middle classdom, and it is that, according to ministers of religion and probation officers, that inclines them to loot when the occasion offers. In much the same way middle-class kids are sensitized to the idea of being rich. Some time during late adolescence most of them subside and realize they're not going to get rich just as most people growing up in the ghetto accomodate themselves to the actualities there. Still, there are a few looters and a few Bert Lances who keep on trying.
It is easier to work your way out of the ghetto, however, than it is to get rich. It is impossible to get rich by working from 9 to 5 and saving your money. If you work 16 hours a day instead of 8 and you are very, very useful and moderately lucky, you can get reasonably rich without ever doing anything you would be ashamed to have them tell about on television.
The conventional way to get rich in this era - and basso Bert is a conventional man - is to get a hold of other people's money, i.e., credit, and use it. Lance didn't have any of his own starting out, so he made use of others via advantageous borrowings that most of us can't get close to. Those huge overdrafts are simply interest-free loans, but you're not going to ger rich if you have to pay the 15 or 20 per cent interest Sears, Roebuck charges its time customers for their installment loans.
If Lance took anybody in these transactions, he took the stockholders of the various banks the stockholders of the various banks he worked for or borrowed from.
If there is any class of characters who can look after themselves it's the people who buy bank stocks. Believe you me, they don't include that widowed grandmother whom Wall Street would have us think owns most of the securities in America. And remember this fuss is going on just when the Securities and Exchange Commission issued a report reminding us that some of the biggest and most ethical banks joined with Mayor Abe Beame in an apparently legal multi-billion dollar New York City bond deal in which a number of real widowed grandmother ladies did get their bustles caught in the wringers of big-time finance.
Compared to that, even if Lance did everything naughty they accuse him of, his nickel-and-dime dealings ought to invoke sympathy. And look what he spent it on, that marvelously garish, real-estate speculator's version of a Southern mansion. Basso Bert is a conspicuous consumer we can identify with. He loves his gold and he knows what to do with it. So different from Sen. Heinz, the pickle heir from Pennsylvania, who has bought himself a political career and has been disapproving of Bert before the TV cameras. What does he know about the acquisitive rage in a poor boy's ambitions?
This is a society in which the kids who fight their way to the top cheat their mothers out of the change from grocery store errands. If Bert clipped the boss, don't a lot of people? Let no journalist who has ever picked up a little loose change on his expense account wax righteous about our deep-voiced Bert Not all of us, but millions of us, do steal, as our station in life gives us the opportunity. For the ghetto loter it's the hand through the broken plate glass window, for the bartender it's not remembering to ring up every last drink, for the government it's stealing time and typewriters from the taxpayers, and for the acquisitors at the apex it's joyriding in the company jets and those nice no/low interest loans.
The satisfying thing about the Bert Lance episode is it happeded to Jiminy Peanuts. That's teach him to go around acting like he's so all-fired better than the rest of us.