After Sen. Abraham Ribicoff (D.-Conn.) went to see President Carter a few days ago to urge the resignation of Bert Lance, director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the senator could easily have extended some overdue apologies to the press.
He didn't, but at least he now admits he made a "mistake" last July when he accused the media of "smearing" Lance through a series of investigative stories. The stories raised serious questions about the Georgian's banking operations and his own financial transactions.
Up until the past week, Ribicoff had been the chief defender of Lance on Capitol Hill and, as chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, had presided over the pro forma confirmation of the OMB chief last January after the most superficial of hearings.
During the summer, however, the committee felt obliged to hold another inquiry - or go through the motions of one - after the press began to uncover damaging information about Lance that the committee had failed to discover for itself.
The second hearing turned out to be as perfunctory as the first, consisting mostly of a testimonial by Lance to himself. At its conclusion, Chairman Ribicoff said to the budget director, "You have been smeared from one end of the country to the other, in my opinion unjustly." Investigative reporters, he protested, are trying "to get everybody - that's the name of the game today."
The senator then told Lance: "There isn't a thing that has developed that impugns your character, your reputation, or your ability. . . . Maybe we should write finis to the Bert Lance experience." In fairness to Ribicoff, who enjoys a respected position on the Hill, most of the other committee members shared his view.
Sen. Charles Percy (R.-Ill.), another highly regarded senator and the ranking Republican on the committee, said he was "completely satisfied" with Lance's defense of himself. He, too, recommended against carrying on the investigation.
Still another committee member, Sen. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.), awarded the OMB director "our 'Good House-keeping Seal' of approval," and added, "It's nice of you to drop by and prove your innocence."
It's a dramatically different story today, though. When Ribicoff hurried to the White House the other day, Percy went with him, and joined in urging the President to demand Lance's immediate resignation.
The senators are now so concerned over the latest revelations about Lance that they called for his dismissal in advance of a scheduled appearance of the director before their committee next Thursday.
Lance asked for the hearing to answer publicly the growing allegations against him, and he is entitled to this further day in court. The senators' haste in demanding his scalp before hearing him out is as unseemly as their earlier haste in whitewashing him.
The attacks on the press for pressing the investigation of Lance have not been confined to Ribicoff and other senators, for White House figures have also chimed in. Charles Kirbo, the prominent Atlanta attorney whi is regarded as Carter's senior adviser, recently said he saw no reason why Lance (a close friend) should resign simply because "the press chops him up."
A week or so ago The Wall Street Journal referred to the White House's handling of Lance case as a "bush-league performance," and wondered whether Carter knows "what he's doing." Jody Powell, the President's press secretary, said he "sometimes had the same question" about the Journal's editors. Powell, as U.S. News noted, has labeled various news stories as "grossly unfair" and "foolishness."
As for the press itself, it has learned from the Watergate experience not to be too disturbed over the counterattacks that investigative reporting inevitably inspires. On the whole, the media in general has taken in stride the charges of smearing and houding Lance.
Reporters and columnists have patiently kept on digging. Bit by bit, despite attempted coverups, the truth is emerging, and that's all the press needs to justify public confidence. The senators on the Governmental Affairs Committee presently say that important information was withheld from them at the Lance confirmation hearings, and that they were also handicapped by not having subpoena powers for an indepth inquiry.
The press didn't have subpoena powers, either, and to get the facts it had to overcome the efforts of numerous individuals to conceal them. The Lance hearings, Ribicoff says, "have exposed the weakness of the Senate confirmation process." Almost all such hearings, he adds, "are pro forma."
They don't have to be, and they not always are, as shown by the Senate's determined investigation and rejection of two of former President Nixon's appointees to the Supreme Court. Deputy Comptroller Robert Bloom has just testified that if the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee had really been interested in exploring Lance's banking record, it would have noted that his confirmation letter about Lance had "red flags all over it."
When the full Senate passed on Lance, only one member, William Proxmire (D-Wis.), voted against his confirmation, and was criticized for it. Proxmire simply felt Lance's brief experience in government, limited to a couple of years as highway commissioner of a smallish state, was woefully inadequate to run OMB, one of the most demanding jobs in the country. It now appears that the likeable Lance (yes, I like him, too) was not even competent to run a small-town bank properly.