IT IS FRIDAY as I write this. I have just come from the bank. The lines were long. The women in front of me was making a deposit for the entire city of Washington. She held in her hand a paper bag and she deposited approximately $4 billion in nickels. Then my turn came. The teller would not cash my check even though I had just deposited more than that amount. She said I didn't have enough money in my account. She is, in my book, a banker.
The women behind me moaned. The teller said I would have to see an officer. This is the same bank where if I overdraw my account, the bank sends me a letter, and rejects the check and charges me something bike $7. It is not the same bank that threatened in a form letter to take legal action when my loan payment was a bit late - after my making payments for six years.
It is not the same bank that threatened to take me to jail for a mistake it once made. It is not the same bank that wouldn't give me a mortgage because the legal interest rate ceiling was too low. It is not the same bank that called in my father's loan but it is the same bank said it would not give me free checking. It said it only gives free checking to diplomats.
It does not matter what bank it is. All banks have their rules and everybody has to abide by them. Everybody, that is, but other bankers. You can see this in the Bert Lance case and if you don't believe it, you have only to look at the report by the comptroller of the currency which cites how BaBelle Lance's account was sometimes overdrawn as much as $125,000. It says nothing about letters and her account being billed $7.
Don't get me wrong. Don't think that I'm naive enough to believe that you, me and banker play by the same rules. Banking, after all, is their business and I just assumed they helped each other out - got some things wholesale. This doesn't upset me any. It's the way things work in other industries, one of the reasons, for instance, why we in the newspaper business always have room on the obituary page when a colleague or a colleague's relative dies. I know you're shocked.
Anyway, when it comes to Bert Lance I did not get excited. I just naturally asumed that he had used a first name here and there when getting a loan - that he was not forced to stand in line. So I did nothing but yawn when the charges against him were first leveled and this being summer it took a massive injection of sheer will power for me even to read stories that had teams in them like correspondent banks and fiduciary responsibility.
But then this report on Lance's career as a banker came out and I sat down and I read it half asleep and I came across this business about that $125,000 overdraft by LaBelle Lance. That stopped me and so I read back and then I read the whole thing and when I had finished I came away with the feeling that there was this pattern - that wherever Bert Lance's bank established a correspondent banking arrangement, Bert lance himself got a personal loan. I also came away with the notion that Lance and his relatives and his campaign organization used that bank as if it were their own petty cash drawer.
Now none of that is a crime and none of that is a really mortal sin and none of that is so bad that I didn't sort of expect it. But I should point out that the money in that bank was not Lance's - that it belonged to the depositors and that he owed it to them to be careful with it. His depositors and his shareholders looked to him to see that he managed their money wisely - that he tolerated no overdrafts which, after all, are loans and that he made his arrangements for correspondent banking solely on the basis of what was good for the bank.
Anyway, all of this would amount to yet another Washington nothing in a summer full of them were it not for the fact that Jimmy Carter flew down from Camp David himself to put his arm around his friend Lance and talk about him as if he was the Albert Schweitzer of banking. At the end of an effusive statement, the President said, "Bert, I'm proud of you." What you have to ask, is why? Why in the world is the President so proud of Lance? What in the world has the man done?
Well, what he's done is conduct himself inside the law, but not by much, and what he's done, at any rate, is conduct himself like maybe all bankers conduct themselves. He hasn't committed a crime, but he hasn't set any new standards for moral conduct, either and this, need I remind you, is the administration that was going to do that. This was the administration that was going to be squeaky clean - that loved you personally and individually and would never lie to you.
These were the standards laid down by Jimmy Carter himself. It would not be enough in the Carter administration to say of a man that he is not a crook or that he was no worse than his colleagues, rather, it was to be said that he was a man whose honesty no one would question and that he was better than his colleagues. By those standards, Bert Lance has failed to pass the test. He's no criminal, but he's nothing to be proud of, either.
He's just a banker.