It was Tuesday afternoon when the White House assistant recieved a telephone call from a reporter who was asking how the word about Bert Lance who was being recieved at the White House.
"What word?" the Carter man asked.
"Lance is expected to be indicted this week-probably tomorrow," the reporter said.
"Oh, no," the Carter man reacted instinctively. "The poor guy. He's really getting it from all sides this week."
The guy the presidential assisstant was talking about was not Bert Lance. It was Jimmy Carter.
The judicial fate of Lance long has seemed a part of the political fate of Carter. And so the immediate thought of this presidential adviser was that Lance's indictment yesterday on 22 counts of felony banking charges was the sort on thing that could make an awful week still worse for President Carter.
It has been a week in which Carter has been hurt by actions of members of Congress from his own Democratic Party, by the words of his former chief speech writer and finally by the indictment of his close personal friend, one of whom he stood beside and said he was proud of, even in the face of revelations of wrongdoing.
First, in the House of Representatives, the Democratic Caucus had slapped down the president's plan for decontrolling oil prices. Then liberal Democrats had joined House Republicans in rejecting a resolution endorsing the Carter budget.
Four Democratic congressman had come out for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) for president in 1980. While this was only four out of 276 Democrats in the House, the number seemed greatly magnified by the time Democratic National Chairman John White finished delivering a heated attack against the dissident handful.
Recently resigned presidential speechwriter James Fallows had come out with firm criticisms and soft praise for the Carter staff and the man who leads them in the second installment of his Atlantic magazine critique of the White House in which he served.
It was against this backdrop that the indictment of Lance added to the political havoc.
"I think Bert Lance is one of the best man I know," Rosalyn Carter said in an appearance on the Phil Donahue television show, taped last week and shown yesterday in Washington.
"He is a good Christian man. He may have extended a little more credit to help farmers. If he did anything wrong, it was out of the goodness of his heart."
Throughout the summer of 1977, that was basically the position of the Carters and those closest to them. Bert Lance had done what many smalltown banker have donel, and now he was being ripped apart by the press and congress and federal investigators, mostly because he had cared enough to come to Washington to help Carter to run the goverment as director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Some of those closest to the president have felt that Lance represents the first part of what has been a very personal and very human anguish that has been the burden of Jimmy Carter. It is that Carter's own desire, even zeal, to be president indirectly brought about individual heart-ache and grief: to Lance, who was first shamed and then indicted; to his brother Billy, who has become the subject of investigations in the wake of the Lance case and who fell into emotional and alcoholism problems; and even to the marriage of his son, Chip, whic collapsed perhaps in part because of the Carter's new life in Washington.
The problems of Lance also exacted a sizeable toll upon the Carter presidency during the summer of 1977.
In part, the toll can be measured in numbers. Gallup poll figures for Carter's first year show that the president's approval rating was in the 60s and 70s through mid-August. It plunged into the 50s by Sept. 1i, when the Lance controversy was raging, and it has never climbed back above the 50s.
"Most of us are convinced that the Bert Lance affair had a great deal to do with ending the honeymoon for Jimmy Carter," said one Carter adviser." . . .Carter had gotten elected because, more than else, he was viewed different, and outsider. Things would be better with Jimmy Carter and things would be different. The Lance thing, I think, amde people think 'these guys are all the same.'"
There are, in the Carter White House, many advisers, a number of them in senior positions, who remain rather bitter about the way Lance handled the Lance affair. Not because they think he was guilty. And no because they do not share his view that he was being given an unusually hard ride, an unfair ride, in the press.
But they think that Lance alone knew what he had done and that there was enough there to assure that the matter would not quickly die, whether or not he was guilty of illegality.
"He could have ended it quickly by resigning early," said one Carter aide, echoing the views of many in the White House. "By staying and fighting as long as he did, he dragged the president down."
He also tied up much of the time of many of the Carter senior staff during those weeks of the summer of 1977, until the inner circle concluded reluctantly that the president could have no political peace unless Lance resigned.
Lance's departure, on Sept. 22, 1977, relieved Carter of one political burden, but left him with many others. For the investigation of Lance expanded into other areas, including the finances of his peanut warehouse in Plains, Ga., and the financing of his campaign. The investigations have produced no proof of wrongdoing, but they have political embarassments.
And finally, the departure of Lance left Carter with a void that has never been filled. "Bert was the only one of us in personal terms Jimmy Carter's equal," said one Carter adviser. Hamilton Jordan and Jody powell are a generation younger than the president and Lance. Charles Kirbo is older, but he is just not there everyday.
It was late Tuesday afternoon when Justice Department spokesman Terence Adamson telephoned the White House and told deputy press secretary Rex Granum that Lance's indictment would likely come the following day.
Granum telephoned the news to his boss Powell, who was at home. Powell did not tell Carter until the next morning. "What in God's name could the president have done if I had told him yesterday instead of today?" Powell said after the indictment was finally made public.
What Powell and Granum and other Carter staff members did Tuesday night was watch portions of televised Watergate soaper, John Dean's "Blind Ambition." It was a self-serving portrait of a time worth recalling now, for, while the Bert Lance indictment is a serious matter, the Watergate program was a reminder of all that it is not. The Lance indictment is not burglaries and blackbag jobs and hush money and cover-uos at the highest level. It is not deep-sixing of evidence.
It is about a banker charged with banking crimes. And that it is bad enough. It is something of which no one can be proud. CAPTION: Picture, Lance sharing center stage in December 1976 after being introduced as Carter's choice for budget chief.