THE QUESTIONS are not being pressed by Bert Lance's enemies - for, in truth, he seems to have none. It's always his friends, his natural allies, the people in the same party and the same administration who keep reluctantly pressing into his financial troubles. Sen. Abraham Ribicoff (D-Conn.), who called for Mr. Lance's resignation on Monday, is the same Sen. Abraham Ribicoff who hotly defended him two months ago. Now the senator is talking about allegations of illegalities, undisclosed, which have led him to abandon his previous position as Mr. Lance's chief advocate at the Capitol.
But just as the senator moved too quickly last July when he pronounced Mr. Lance to be above reproach, it is possible that the senator is also wrong in condemning Mr. Lance now. If leaping to conclusions were an Olympic event, Sen. Ribicoff would be a gold medalist. President Carter prefers to let Mr. Lance stay on the job and defend himself in the coming hearings. That, at least, is right. The Lance affair has now gone far enough that fairness requires it to be resolved in public, with open accusations and open defense.
Mr. Lance's embarrassments show a pattern that has repeated itself at each successive stage. First there is a question, not from an adversary but from someone on his side. Then, sooner or later, it forces someone else to ask another question - always reluctantly, always inevitably.
Mr. Lance's confirmation hearing, before Sen. Ribicoff's Governmental Affairs Committee last January, was the most congenial interrogation imaginable. But the senators could hardly avoid mentioning Mr. lance's large holdings of stock in those two Georgia banks. The answer was Mr. Lance's pledge to sell it by the end of the year. It seemed a perfectly routine Q and A at the time.But then the price of the bank stock started to sink.
In July, another friend of Mr. Lance - the President - asked the committee to release him from that pledge. The request raised further questions: Would Mr. Lance's emerging debts make him vulnerable to the wrong kind of pressures? And what was going on in those banks, anyway?
On the day after the President's request to the committee, the new Comptroller of the Currency, John G. Heimann, decided that those questions required him to open his own inquiry into the Georgia banks of which Mr. Lance had been president. Again, it was hardly a hostile inquiry. Mr. Heimann and Mr. lance were serving the same administration. But the questions were pressing. When the Comptroller's report appeared in mid-August, it contained a detailed recapitulation of some of Mr. Lance's business practices - raising, once again, still sharper questions.
President Carter attempted to defend Mr. Lance by arguing that his methods were normal for country banks. At that point, there began to be a rising disclaimer from another part of Mr. Lance's constituency, the bankers and businessmen who objected to the suggestion that they all operated as Mr. Lance had been doing. Meanwhile, Sen. Ribicoff was getting uneasy about the "Good Housekeeping Seal" that his committee had bestowed upon Mr. Lance, and he sent serveral of the committee's staff down to Georgia for an independent appraisal.It was their research, apparently, that led to the talk of "alleged illegalities" and the senator's Labor Day visit to the White House. Now Mr. Lance is going to be asked more questions about his personal and political use of his bank's aircraft.
But the President's response is the thing that counts now, not Mr. Lance's. The Lance case is much more than a routine charge of misconduct precisely because of the severe and rigid ethical standards that Mr. Carter has repeatedly laid down. If he wishes to keep Mr. Lance at the White House, he is either going to have to loosen the standards or to concede that there are exceptions for old friends.
It is a painful moment, no less so for all the precedents in nearly every other presidency. Presidents need their friends as much as any of us does, and perhaps a good deal more. To remove an old an loyal friend is the bitterest kind of political surgery. Recently Mr. Carter has been playing for time by refusing to acknowledge that the questions exist or that he is going to have to make a choice. But that choice is pressing on him, and the way in which he resolves it will influence the atmosphere of his administration throughout the last three and a half years of his term.