President Carter has confided this concern in the ear of evangelist Billy Graham: If I let them "drive" Bert Lance out, it will only whet their appetites for other victims within my official family.
That virtual appeal for help to Graham was delivered in a long telephone conversation initiated by the President this past week. It reveals the true nature of Jimmy Carter's battle against rising demands from the press, Republicans and leading democrats for the scalp of budget director Lance.
Graham, we have been told by informed political sources, was surprised by the vehemence of the President's self-defense in refusing to be stampeded into ousting Lance. The President made this case to Graham:
The press demanded Lance's head before the facts were known and before Lance had his day in court.
Getting rid of Lance would give the press a taste of power that, following its legitimate triumph in Watergate, would induce an irresistible avalanche of investigations against other Carter administration officials.
The focal point of this attack would probably be the "Georgia mafia," starting with Attorney General Griffin Bell, long a member of the Carter inner circle.
Carter's decision to confide in Graham is understandable. Both are Southern Baptists and born-again Christians. Besides, other Presidents - most conspicuously Richard Nixon - have appealed to Graham for aid in political crises.
Nevertheless, there are risks in the implications of Jimmy Carter's drawing the wagons around himself and his beleaguered friend and beseeching America's most popular evangelist for help.
Evidence that Gerald Ford has no intention to run for President in 1980 came in his refusal of two choice invitations from prestigious Republican groups next month.
The former President turned down chances to talk to the Republican Governors Association at Bretton Woods, N.H., Oct. 9 and to the National Federation Republican Women in Atlanta Oct. 21. Instead, John Connally will address the governors and Ronald Reagan will be the main speaker in Atlanta.
Gov. Meldrim Thompson of New Hampshire, this year's host for the Republican governors, was asked by a prominent Republican politician why Ford regretted. He snapped: "He probably has a golf date."
The real reason is lack of interest in the political scene. Ford, says one party insider, "is cultivating a low profile in politics and a high profile as a senior statesman. He's not even thinking about 1980 as a candidate."
Harsh criticism of Ford is rife among Republicans who have doubts about the Panama Canal treaties. They were furious that the titular head of their party jumped to support President Carter so fast at the theatrical treaty-signing here.
Republican state chairmen will air their grievances about Ford in New Orleans Sept. 27, just before the National Committee meets there. The state chairmen may pass a resolution not only putting themselves on record against the treaties but sniping at Ford for rushing to defend the treaties without first making an effort to ascertain party-wide sentiment.
Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd, who may decide the fate of the Panama Canal treaties, will make his first visit to Panama within two weeks after Congress adjourns next month. Byrd plans to visit both the republic and the Canal Zone and talk to both Panamanians and "Zonians" (American employees in hte zone) to help make up his mind.
The methodical, conscientious Byrd has been immersing himself in the canal question and recently read "The Path Between the Seas," the new bestseller about the canal by David McCullough. He decided to visit Panama after talking to Sen. Ernest P. Hollings of South Carolina, another uncommitted senator who visited there last month.