Normally, it is not even news: a Texas millionaire entertaining Washington access-seekers and the politically powerful at a stag bash in the bucolic Maryland countryside.
But it is another kind of bash when the host is oil man Clint Murchinson; when guests include senators, assorted Carter White House people, former Nixon aides, corporate lobbyists and a sprinkling of Arabs, all assembled to shower adulation on Bert Lance.
They gathered under a lawn tent in Potomac Monday night, convened by Murchison for his annual wild-game feed and a chance to shake the hand of Lance. It was a jocose, back-slapping affair highlighted by Murchison's clowning in sheikh's disguise and a Nixon mask.
Among the dozens of political heavy hitters joining in the mirth were Hamilton Jordan and Frank Moore, two of President Carter's closest strategists, and James McIntyre. Lance's successor as director of the Office of Management and Budget.
It is more than impression: the friendly arm of the White House, a sanctum to which the unanointed strive dearly for access, remains draped over Bert Lance's shoulder.
Beyond that, Jordan wanted to make a point in an interview last week. "I want to show we are still friends and always will be . . . You don't desert friends when they're in trouble, even if they do something wrong," he said.
Jordan described as absolutely unture a Time magazine report that said he had called Lance in and told him to stay away from the president because he was becoming an embarrassment.
Jordan, however, allowed that a time might come when such a scenario might be possible. "Some people say we came to it six or eight months ago. I hope we don't ever come to it," he said.
Lance is gone from office, but the Bert Lance story will not go away. His newly found Arab and other benefactors and their quickness to help him, and his continuing woes with federal securities investigators keep him in the news.
Lance is that shambling, amiable giant from Georgia, an incarnation of the southern novelist's most complex high-rolling salesman, maybe Jimmy Carter's best friend and surely one of his most trusted political associates.
He quit his job at OMB last fall, criticized for his banking activities before he came to Washington and for the management of his own tangled, debt-laden personal finances.
Unfair criticism, hounded from office, his friends said. But how, came the response, could a man who had made a jumble of his own checkbook be allowed to oversee the finances of the federal government?
The Bert Lance story will not go away.
A federal grand jury is investigating him for his pre-OMB banking activities. He is sued for violating federal securities laws, the suit is settled and he agrees to remedies. He becomes an agent for wealthy Arabs,one of them the former Saudi intelligence chief, attempting to take over a big Washington bank holding company. Arab money helps him pay off a $3.5 million loan, without a note or collateral. A Saudi Arabian buys his stock in an Atlanta bank.
For his part, Lance moves apace, staying barely ahead of his debts, traveling with a diplomatic passport that the State Department only recently required him to surrender, dealing in millions. He remains known as the president's dear and close friend. He stays welcome at the White House, preffers advice. At moments that seem too precise to be coincidental - during a court session, for example - he mentions Carter's name and his White House ties.
The relationship, at a time when Lance is under the eye of federal prosecutors and while he scrambles to seal business deals with Arab money men, draws attention.
Republicans are loving it. Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo) wants a special prosecutor to deal with the Lance case because Carter's praise of the man has "a chilling effect" on prosecutors and witnesses.
Bill Brock, the Republican national chairman, put it another way. "The problem is the close personal relationship that Lance has with the president. There clearly is a double standard. The entire theme of the Carter campaign was that of a higher standard. It simply has not applied to Bert Lance."
Brock added, "It is quite possible for leaders of other nations to become deeply concerned about this relationship. The Arab ties with Lance are clear and obvious. That cannot give comfort to an Israeli government that is fighting for its very existence."
What does the president do? Does he renounce a friend he knows as well as if he was my own brother"? Should the White House and its political denizens ignore Lance, who comes from the same Georgia old-boy network? At what point does the trusted friend become a liability - for the appearances of it, if no other reason?
It is a dilemma faced by other presidents. Truman had his Harry Vaughan. Eisenhower had his Sherman Adams; Johnson, his Bobby Baker; Nixon, his Agnew, his Haldeman his Ehrlichman.
The dilemmas are of a varying sort, of course, but this one is delineated in part by the tone of a Carter campaign that promised a special kind of morality. The candidate avowed an end to even the untoward appearances of conflict.
In the view of Jody Powell, the president's press secretary and longtime Lance friend, the high standard remains intact and, more, it is not in danger - appearances notwithstanding.
"The city of Washington is eaten up with lobbyists who trade or make a living off their personal relationships," Powell said. "And here's a guy like Bert. He's never tried to use his relationship with anyone in the White House of the government to get something for himself."
There is, however, another view at the White House, at staff levels below Powell. Said one Carter aide: "The reality is that anytime a f-ing lobyist is invited to a meeting in the White House, and the president walks up to him and shakes his hand and knows his name, well, it's worth money to that lobbyist."
It may be the illusion of mirrors, but that is Washington reality. Access, be it real or be it imagined, means money and power.
With their petroleum income running at a rate of about $110 billion a year, the Arab states of the MiddleEast and the Arabs who have become enormously wealthy from oil have a problem: want to do with the surplus money.
One of their approaches is to invest the money overseas. Real estate and banking enterprises in the United States have proved particularly attractive to the Arab investors.
As acute businessmen, they look for the best deals and the sharpest agents to help them negotiate their way through the briars of a sometimes puzzling American legal and commercial thicket.
Bert Lance is not the first American political figure to whom Arabs have turned for help. Spiro T. Agnew and Richard G. Kleindienst, albeit troubled political figures, have represented Arab interests. Ditto attorney Clark Clifford, an adviser to presidents, and former Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.). Ditto former U.S. government officials and diplomats.
Coming at it from another angle, however, the monied Arabs are not immune from being had. "A lot of Americans see this as the last Yukon," said a Washington lawyer who represents Saudi Arabian interests.
"It is not just the Agnews," he continued. "There are many respectable people who think they can lay it on the Arabs. You may wonder how much they might be trying to get access to Carter by hiring Burt Lance. But the bigger perception to me is how much Americans are suddenly going out and trying to make it with the Arabs."
So what, it seems fair to ask, does an Arab moneyman buy when he joins forces with a troubled Georgia banker who has well-known White House connections?
Monsour Al Turki, the deputy finance minister of Saudi Arabia, answered one way last month with a question: "What good does it do us to buy a bank in Georgia?"
Ghaith Pharaon, the Saudi businessman who purchased Lance's $2.4 million of stock in the National Bank of Georgia, said he was seeking financial expertise, pure and simple.
A.H. Abedi, a Pakistani who manages a repository of Arab money in London, the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, has not explained why he paid off a $3.5 million loan for Lance with only an oral promise of repayment. An attorney for Lance said formal loan documents were being prepared late last month.
A former American envoy to the Middle East commented, "Everything they do is on a personal basis, a basis of mutual trust and mutual assistance. I have told the Arabs that this (dealing with Lance) will hurt them, but they see themselves helping a good friend of Carter and they see nothing wrong with that."
He continued, "They don't understand that getting involved can be a disaster for them . . . They see Bert Lance as a personal friend of the president. They know that people don't drop personal friends. They think 'design' (a plot) forced Lance from office. So when he has difficult times, you help him. There's nothing in writing - not even a spoken understanding. They know that the person in power helps you."
A saying from the Bedouins puts it in focus: If one does a good deed for a good man, one will be paid back twice over.
Notwithstanding White House denials that Lance is nothing more than a powerless friend, the former OMB chief's access to the inner circle would be difficult for an Arab investor to overlook.
After he left office, Lance prevailed upon the White House to find an invitation to a state dinner for the shah of Iran for Thomas V. Jones, chief executive of the Northrop Corp. Northrop stands to profit from the sale of the F18 fighter plane to Iran, another oil power.
Jones, who has pleaded guilty to making illegal contributions to the Nixon campaign in 1972, had avidly sought access to the White House without success. Then he called Lance.
And before Carter publicly announced his choice of G. William Miller - a friend fo Lance's - to be chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Lance made calls to New York bankers to give them advance notice of the decision.
Luncheons and visits to the WHite House, and his travels abroad as co-chairman of the Friendship Force, a people-to-people program Carter set up when he was governor of Georgia, have done nothing to discourage the notion that Lance is still a power of sorts.
The Lance-Arab-Carter connection is not lost on the Israeli government. Sources say that the matter is privately talked about by the Begin government as one of its many concerns about U.S. policy.
"Everything the Saudis fo that deals with money abroad and is not a sound investment, as in the case of Lance, has to mean buying influence, buying options, protecting themselves from dangers as they perceive them," said Shlomo Aronson, a UCLA professor on leave from Hebrew University and an occasional columnist for Haaretz, the leading Tel Aviv daily. "They are a shrewd and experienced people."
A State Department official dismissed such a worry - that Lance's White House ties might somehow be used to attempt to nudge the United States away from Israel - as Israeli "paranoia."
But the sensitivity of the matter is plain. Simcha Dinitz, the Israeli ambassador here, not only refused to discuss it, he forbade his press attache from discussing it.
Press secretary Powell said, "The poor guy (Lance) is a private citizen. I can't say I would ask him not to enter into a productive relationship with someone from a country that a lot of people don't want us to sell planes to.
"I'm saying that unless Bert Lance moved into a cave on the side of a mountain and ate sardines out of a can and spoke to no one, there still would be people who felt he did or supposedly did something wrong that they could make an issue of."
"There is nothing he could do, short of becoming a hermit, without getting some kind of criticism . . . Bert lance has never asked the president or anyone else here to do anything that is a betrayal of the public trust," Rowell said.
The profile of Bert Lance seen from Riyadh or Tel Aviv or Washington is one thing, but there is still another side to it - Bert Lance back home.
At home, he is a hero. Almost a folk hero, one of the Georgia outsiders who went to Washington, never put on airs, never wronged anyone, did a helluva job at OMB. And for all that, he was driven from his calling.
Despite his troubles and despite the reality of Lance's difficulties with securities laws, he remains enormously popular in Georgia.
The picture of this loyal presidential confidant, pestered by investigators and the press, evokes sympathy among those who understand that his and Carter's roots are firmly planted in the red clay commandment: thou shalt not let newfound status change the way you treat old friends.
Examples abound, but in Georgia it's nearly an everyday thing, this outpouring of affection for Bert Lance Last week, when Lance went on a popular Atlanta radio talk show, one caller after another told him, in effect, "We'd be a lot better off if you were still in Washington." At WXIA-TV, the station that hired Lance as a news commmentator, manager Dick Williams says Lance has helped buoy the station's standing, though it remains third in the market.
Georgians read The Atlanta Constitution, the state's leading daily, and what they get on the editorial page is unabashed warmth for Bert Lance.
The paper, for whatever this means, is owned by the family of Anne Cox Chambers, a generous Carter contributor who is now U.S. ambassador to Belgium. It's editor, Hal Gulliver, is friendly enough that Lance asked him to help prepare his defense when a Senate committee looked at his financial affairs last year. One recent morning, the paper's editorial page carried two pro-Lance editorials, who pro-Lance columns and a pro-Lance cartoon.
"He's regarded here as highly competent, a man of great integrity, well known in Georgia civic affairs and politics. People in Georgia will tell you when they were about to go bankrupt, he went a second and third mile to help them through their difficulty. That side of Bert Lance does not get reported in The Washington Post," Gulliver said.
Gulliver was one of the few journalists invited to oilman Murchison's party for Lance. Among the others were Elliot Janeway, an economics columnist who once borrowed money from Lance's bank in Calhoun, Ga., and author Victor Lasky. He wrote "It Didn't Start With Watergate."
Bill Hughes, a weekly newspaper editor at Monticello, Ga., who once worked with Lance at the State Bankers Association, said, "Georgia overwhelmingly supports Bert Lance . . . Talk in Washington has a way of being detached from the reality of life out here in the boondocks."
At Butterfly Manna, the palatial Lance home in an exclusive Atlanta neighborhood - far from the boondocks - life has its own special flavor. "Isn't it just wonderful to be the White House of the South!" Mrs. Lance said over dinner with friends not long ago.