President Carter believes that Bert Lance "enhanced his position" by the way he answered questions about his personal finances during his first two days before Senate investigators.
But the President is "keeping an open mind about this entire subject" until the Senate finishes "analyzing in detail all of the new charges and allegations and things and statements that have been made about Bert Lance."
Carter made the statements Friday, during the latest in a series of meetings with out-of-town editors and news directors. As usual, the transcript of the meeting was embargoed by the White House until 6 p.m. the following day.
The President also said he does not think Lance has let the month-long investigation interfere with his job as director of the Office Management and Budget.
Carter said he has not watched the televised, day-long questioning of Lance by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, except for "an 18-to-20-minute recap on some of the highlights" that his staff puts together.
"But my assessment from the brief time I have watched it and also from my own staff is that he has enhanced his position," Carter said, "because he was in a situation where literally for weeks all kinds of allegations and charges were made . . . and he had not had a chance to answer those charges.
"Now that he has answered those charges - I hope and believe successfully - I think he has certainly enhanced his position."
The President said he still believes, as he stated the day before, "I don't know of anything illegal that Bert Lance has done. I don't know of any unethical conduct on his behalf. And I am keeping an open mind about this entire subject until the Senate goes through its present procedure . . ."
Lance is ". . . now begin given a fair chance to say, "These are all of the charges, this is my answer to them,'" Carter said. "And of course, I will certainly have an eagerness to learn of any reason for me to change the assessment that I have just made. But I want to be fair about it . . . The facts, if divulged, will be conclusive, I think, in the shaping of public opinion."
Carter was asked whether the Lance affair confronted him with a problem where the solution best for the larger concerns of the presidency may not be altogether fair for Lance. In reply, he discoursed for the first time publicly about his thoughts on that matter:
". . . That is something I will have to balance . . . Let's leave Bert Lance out of it for just a moment. Just take any of you, or myself.
"If a series of, say, incorrect allegations are made day after day with the highest possible publicity, the lead story on every television network every night, and headlines in The Washington Post and other newspapers every day, and then all those allegations are proved to be false, how much of those allegations remain to damage the character of a person who might be totally innocent?
"And then you say, well, this person is damaged so that he cannot perform his functions adequately, when the damage has been caused either erroneously or falsely. Well, if that was the only factor, then my decision would be easy.
"But if I also have confidence that as the American people learn - and it may take a while - that the allegations were basically false and have successfully been answered, that the character of the person . . . would be restored, then my decision would be different one. And I really have been concerned about this matter. . ."
Carter said he knows of no easy answer to that dilemma. But he said again that he has "no evidence to indicate that Bert has done anything illegal or unethical."
He wished, he said, "every one of you could read the FBI report which has been the subject of many references. "Six of the men interviewed by the FBI were then "almost effusive in their recommendation of Bert," he said. "But now their testimony under the pressure of the Senate interrogation is a little bit different."
The President did not elaborate, but he noted that Lance ". . . has an ability under the law to get the FBI record under the Freedom of Information Act and make it public." So far, Lance banking practices, Carter said he does not "excuse overdrafts," but ". . . there is a general sense at home, not because it is in the South but because I live in a small town, that if you have several accounts and a substantial balance in all those accounts but then you become overdrawn in one of those accounts, then that is not considered to be an illegal or unethical act."
". . . I can't say that it is an acceptable thing," Carter said. "But I still don't believe that it is an unethical or illegal thing in the banking circles in which I have had to operate."
During the discourse, Carter disclosed that his wife Rosalynn does all the check-writing for the family. "I never write any checks," he said. "I haven't written three checks in the last five years."
He also told the editors, ". . . I can assure you there has been absolutely zero slippage in the Office of Management and Budget because of this series of allegations that are now being answered by Bert Lance to the Senate. . ."
On another issue the President attacked the oil companies again for putting "enormous" political pressure on the Senate to change his national energy plans; "I think the oil companies have enough cash flow right now, certainly the majors do, to have an adequate degree of exploration. In fact, that exploration in my opniion is adequate at this point. . . I don't think the oil companies deserve to get this money taken out of the consumers' pockets and put into the pockets of the oil companies."