AS CONFRONTATIONS GO, it was not an edifying occassion. The Lance case seems progressively to be bringing out the worst in everybody. Bert Lance began by angrily asserting all sorts of "human rights" to which he holds only the most dubious kind of title. His antagonists, Sen. Abraham Ribicoff and Sen. Charles Percy, the chairman and ranking Republican of the Governmental Affairs Committee, responded with an air of syrupy sanctimony as they read through the numbers over and over, reminding everyone of the size and duration of those overdrafts. The committee and its witness spent the day treading out the same old grapes, and there is not much juice left in them. Mr. Lance was altogether persuasive on one point - that he hasn't done anything criminal. Sens. Ribicoff and Percy had both hinted at it earlier this month, but neither has come up with evidence, and Mr. Percy, at least, had the grace yesterday to apologize. But the challenge to Mr. Lance has never centered on criminal misconduct.
The main issue is whether the committee knew what it should have known last January, when it voted to confirm Mr. Lance. He says that he came clean with the committee's staff; the senators say that they weren't fully informed. It's apparently another instance of shaded suggestions and meanings incompletely grasped. The committee knew that there had been overdrafts, but did not realize the size or duration of them. It knew something about criticism of the Lance banks by the examiners, but did not comprehend the implications of them. No doubt the private interrogations were much like the public one in the confirmation hearing itself. Mr. Lance's answers there were never factually wrong but, on the other hand, they were sometimes a good deal less than complete.
Mr. Lance opened his defense with the claim that his basic human rights were being violated by the waves of accusation and innuendo emanating from the committee and rolling around in the newspapers and the television news shows. It's quite true that the controversy over Mr. Lance has been raucous and disorderly. That tends to be the spirit of American politics. It is not admirable, but neither is it a violation of the Bill of Rights.
The answer to Mr. Lance's complaint is that nobody has a constitutional right to be director of the Office of Management and Budget, holding one of the most powerful offices in the country. A public quarrel over the conduct and qualifications of a man in high political office may offend the rules of taste and discretion, but it does not trespass on anybody's human rights. Mr. Lance asserted that his right to reply was denied him. That's an odd claim for a man who could call a well-attended press conference whenever he chose - as indeed he has chosen to do more than once over the summer.
As for the committee, it compounds the confusion by behaving as though the issue were Mr. Lance's management of those two banks in Georgia. Whether he ran them well or badly is irrelevant. The first question for the committee is whether he misled it in the hearings last winter. The second question is whether he is still in a position to give his full attention to his job as budget director. To those who had previously felt that he ought to resign, he offered no new reason yesterday to change that judgment.
The most significant aspect of yesterday's hearing was the suggestion that some of the Democratic senators were taking up an active defense of Mr. Lance. It indicates that the White House may be organizing a serious effort in Congress to keep Mr. Lance at the President's side. If that turns out to be the case, it will mean that Mr. Carter has decided to invest still more of his personal standing and authority in a cause that, unfortunately, does not deserve it.