Bert Lance's televised performance last September before the Senate Government Affairs Committee wasn't good enough to keep him as Jimmy Carter's budget director, but it turned out to be a successful audition for his newest job - as five-day-a-week TV commentator on an Atlanta station.
It was during the hearings that the idea of Lance as a TV analyst popped into the head of James Sieger, director of corporate news for the Combined Communications Corporation, a Denver-based company that owns seven television stations including WXIA-TV, Atlanta. (The Federal Communications Commission approved its purchase of WJLA-TV, Channel 7, in Washington, on Friday.)
One of those present at the time of Sieger's brainstorm said everyone at first "sort of laughed." but on second though they decided to pursue it "after things died down."
An intermediary recently told the stations' officials that Lance was receptive and, a few weeks ago, when the idea was put to him directly, "it took all of 15 minutes" to close a deal, according to a WXIA official.
So Bert Lance is to join Jerry Ford and Henry Kissinger in the swelling ranks of former public servants turned news commentators.
Yesterday, smiling and looking thinner than in his Washington days, Lance told a press conference crowded with TV cameras that beginning Feb. 6 he would go on the air five nights a week and hope he would "bring forth some of the basic concerns of the nation."
He showed some of his old-time good nature telling questioners yesterday his TV style was "developed by the (Senate) hearings" and "comming out of my (Washington) house in the morning," when television newsmen followed him with microphones.
The "11 Alive" news program that Lance joins next month has a newsroom format. It is hoped he will do his 1 1/2- minute or two-minutes commentaries live and respond to questions from the anchorman, just like the other reporters on the program.
Lance said his joining the ranks of television newsmen "was not an attempt to get even." He added, however, he considered the Washington matter over and done with.
TO prove it, he refused to answer questions on how he paid off his $3.4-million debt to the First National Bank of Chicago. An Atlanta court record filed Jan. 10 showed the debt "was paid in full." That was the same day Lance reportedly received $3 million from sale of 60 per cent of his National Bank of Georgia stock to a Saudi Arabian investor.
He also refused to give his television news salary, saying "one of the great things about being a private citizen is that I don't have to answer questions like that."
After the press conference, Lance said being a TV commentator would not be his only employment, but he would not say what other jobs he may now hold.
Asked about any possible conflict berween outside financial interests and what he might say on television, Lance replied he would "never do anything to embarrass the station."
News officials at WXIA, it was learned, have wondered themselves about what they will do when Lance decides to opine on banking regulations, Middle East oil or Saudi Arabian policies or even state and national Democratic politics.
At yesterday's press conference Lance announced his continuing support for the re-election of Democratic Gov. George Busbee and Sen. Sam Nunn.
Jeff Davidson, president and general manager of WXIA-TV, said he was not worried about such potential conflicts. He had not asked Lance about outside jobs, he said. "As a matter of courtesy," Davidson added, "Lance might tell me."
WXIA-TV's news shows run third in this three-station market but have been doing better recently. The former budget director, who is practically a folk hero in this part of the country, may put them into second. If his commentaries are good, there is, it was said yesterday, always the possiblity of syndication.
Who knows, Lance may have another chance in Washington. Think of what it would be like with William Safire in print twice a week and Bert Lance firing back live over television.