Quick: why did Bert Lance resign? If that question is hard to answer in specific terms, it’s no surprise—Lance left less for any specific misdeed than because the Washington tide had somehow turned against him. That’s why all attempts at precise, logical explanation of his demise have ended up in this hopelessly twisted fashion: he resigned because so many people were calling for him to resign that he couldn’t do his job.
But of course any case has to have particulars, and particulars there were. One of them that was especially dramatic, easy to understand, and attention-grabbing had to do with Lance’s use of airplanes. As the charge is probably remembered, it was that Lance used a company plane owned by his bank in Atlanta as a personal vehicle—as part of what was called “a widespread pattern of abuse” of his position. Senator Charles Percy called it “abusive use of corporate aircraft.” Newsweek said Lance “used the planes improperly for personal trips.” The New York Times said Lance used the plane “extensively for personal— perhaps also some improper political—purposes.” The strong impression, in short, was of Lance as a man who, in pursuit of one more ornament for his bejeweled life, wantonly broke the law.
Because of the way the story broke, it was hard to figure out exactly where Lance had flown and how his flights became public, but here is how it happened. In 1975, when Lance assumed the presidency of the National Bank of Georgia, he and his wife already owned a Beechcraft plane that they had bought for use in Lance’s 1974 campaign for governor of Georgia. In May 1975, when Lance came to the bank, he leased it his plane, and two months later the bank bought the plane from him. In November 1976 the bank sold Lance’s Beechcraft and bought another one to replace it.
By all accounts, Lance was hired to be an aggressive business-getter for the National Bank of Georgia, and it’s clear that a plane was, in Lance’s mind and the bank board’s, an essential tool in the kind of business Lance intended to do. It’s also clear that Lance did a lot of flying while he was at the bank, and that he is the kind of person for whom the distinction between personal and business trips is a very fine one. Lance was no nine-to-fiver; he liked to cultivate public officials and woo prospective clients in vacation spots. In any case, Lance says he paid back the bank for purely personal trips; the question, then, is over Lance’s judgment of what constitutes a personal (and campaign) trip.
It’s impossible to judge that independently, because the full records of Lance’s flights have never been made public. What we know about his flights now has come from two sources: leaks to the press from the Comptroller of the Currency’s office and from Senate aides, and questions in Lance’s September Senate hearings by Senators Percy and Ribicoff. The Comptroller’s office subpoenaed the National Bank of Georgia’s flight logs, investigated them extensively this summer, and then turned over a report on their contents to four federal agencies for further investigation and, it was assumed, possible prosecution. Senators Ribicoff and Percy, with the permission of Lance’s lawyer, Clark Clifford, obtained the logs from the Justice Department and asked a long series of questions about specific flights.
In late summer, stories having to do with the bank’s plane started to appear, first in The New York Times, then elsewhere. The Comptroller’s office had found personal and political flights that Lance had failed to declare to the IRS (as income) and the Federal Election Commission (as campaign contributions). Lance had flown on the plane after taking office at the OMB. President Carter had flown on the plane free. The plane was used to ferry various people from Washington to Plains last fall. Lance had used government planes for personal reasons while OMB director.
Some of these allegations, after having been leaked once or twice, never surfaced again. Others were refuted—Carter, for instance, paid back the cost of his plane flights, although late, and when Lance rode on the plane in 1977 it had been leased from the bank by a Georgia friend of his. The use of government planes was, everyone admitted, not illegal, and Lance has paid the government back for them. Percy’s questioning revealed a raft of flights around the South, including some to football games and to Sea Island, a Georgia resort, but Lance gamely held his own in the hearings and insisted there was some business angle to every flight he didn’t reimburse the bank for.
So a rereading of the record on the plane flights issue leads not to any conclusions, but just some general impressions. First, the sources of information about the flights were all people interested in bringing about Lance’s resignation. Second, most of what has been printed about the flights is not specifics, but value judgments made by these interested parties. Third, Lance is without a doubt the kind of high roller to whom a plane is a near-essential and who is not likely to be ever-vigilant about crossing the line between professional and personal use of that plane. Indeed, judging from what is known, it would be hard for anyone to tell at any time which side of that line Lance was on. So what emerges foi) sure is not so much a pattern of abuse as a pattern of how Lance went about his business. Any standard by which the use of the National Bank of Georgia plane was egregious enough to merit Lance’s resignation is a pretty strict standard, especially in a country where so much of the white-collar population lives in an expense-account world. Thinking it over, I wondered if there was anyone who was willing to be measured on that standard as strictly as Lance was. It seemed doubtful, but perhaps the press, which after all had expected much of Lance, would feel it was up to similar scrutiny.
A little calling around to the bulwarks of the Eastern media revealed that it’s not just bankers who have company planes. Time Inc., CBS, RCA (the parent company of NBC), and The New York Times Company all own planes, and The Washington Post Company, which also owns Newsweek, owned one until eight years ago.
Time has a G-2 Gulfstream jet, a Fairchild prop-jet, and half-time use of a helicopter, all of which it says is only for business purposes. Time got some notoriety during the Lance affair when it came out that it had offered Lance a ride on one of its planes, which Lance turned down. Lew Slovinsky, Time’s manager of press relations, says the ride the company offered Lance was to an energy conference it was sponsoring in Williamsburg and was hence clearly a business trip (although Williamsburg isn’t known as a business center, certainly). Time never gives candidates for office rides on its planes, and only flies officeholders around for official reasons.
I asked Mr. Slovinsky if I could see Time’s plane logs, in order to confirm what he said. It seemed to me Time didn’t take Lance’s word about his flights, so why should I take Time’s?
“No,” he said. “Why would you want to see the logs? Don’t you believe what I just told you? I think that’s confidential information. I don’t think there’s any reason to make that public.”
Over at CBS, after several officials referred me to other officials, I was finally able to pose my questions to Robert Hummerstone, the director of corporate information. “What’s the purpose of your questions?” he asked me. “Because of security we don’t generally release details like that. I have a hunch I can’t answer any of your questions.”
I asked him what security meant. “CBS is in the public eye,” he replied, “but that’s as far as I want to go; I really can’t articulate it.” He said he’d have to get back to me.
Mr. Hummerstone got back to say CBS owns two twin-engine jets—a Grumman Gulfstream II that it
bought in 1969, and a Hawker Siddeley it bought in 1977. They’re used, he said, primarily for business, and on those rare occasions when executives use them for personal trips they always reimburse the company. Because of security, I couldn’t see the logs.
I asked him how CBS could report on Lance’s private logs and not let its own private logs be reported on. “Well,” he said, “CBS News does the reporting. We’re quite independent of them; they operate as a separate entity. Those standards—you’d have to talk to them. Although I wouldn’t confuse tax dollars with private dollars.”
Mr. Hummerstone referred me to Ellen Ehrlich, of the press information division of CBS News, and I posed my question to her. “They’re not our flight logs,” she said. “They’re not CBS News logs. They’re corporate logs. If they were News logs, then we’d report on them. Besides, Lance released his logs, right?”
I said no, the logs had been leaked. “Then that’s a very different thing,” said Ms. Ehrlich. “If they were leaked, then there’s no reason why we shouldn’t report it.”
At NBC, the president and the chairman of the board, but nobody else, can and do ride on RCA’s plane. RCA does not consider its logs public information.
The New York Times just this year bought a second-hand jet for business reasons, so that its executives could look at operations in the field. James Goodale, a Times executive vice president, read at some length from the flight logs over the phone, but wouldn’t release them because he said they contain information about confidential business trips. “If the logs said we were flying down to Oscaloosa to look at the Oscaloosa Gazette, which is making millions of dollars, then that might get out and other people would get interested in acquiring it,” he said. The flights he read off included one for Times executives and Golf Digest advertisers (the Times owns Golf Digest) to the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia, but Mr. Goodale said this was purely to get more advertising.
In fairness to Mr. Goodale, he was the only press executive I talked to to whom it seemed to have occurred that there might be some connection between what his company does and what it criticizes other people for doing. It was all right for the Times to report on the content of Lance’s logs while keeping its own under wraps, he said, because Lance’s contained “ancient information.” Lance “didn’t have any ongoing confidential dealings,” he said. “He was in government. We’ve done more to open our logs than any other company would do. I don’t see any conflict.”
I don’t mean to give Mr. Goodale, or the other executives, a hard time; in fact, I think I understand perfectly the mixture of corporate and personal needs that company planes serve in America. I think most reporters understand it perfectly, too, and I’m sure most senators do. (Though you wouldn’t know it from the comments on Lance’s flights. David Brinkley, the well-known naif, suggested that the solution to the plane flights issue is to make political and business big-shots ride in pickup trucks, because “they ought to travel the way most of us travel so they can remember what life is like for those of us who work.” Those of us who work in the White House press corps certainly must understand about planes, since they’re accustomed to taking their families along at discount rates on White House-chartered planes to presidential vacation spots.) Corporate planes may not be one of our nobler institutions, just as expense accounts and perquisites generally are not; but the way to present the truth of these things to the American people is not to talk about one man’s minute legal “abuses” and not mention anyone else’s.
Calling news executives and grilling them about their planes, I felt a little silly feigning a complete lack of inclination to understand what their planes were for, and I wonder if any of Lance’s accusers didn’t feel a little silly too as they shook their heads in bewilderment that anyone could possibly behave as he had. And I’m sure headlines like TIME FLEW GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS TO RESORT or CBS EXECUTIVES USE PLANE FOR PERSONAL FLIGHTS or TIMES EXECS, ADVERTISERS TOOK ‘BUSINESS’ TRIP TO GOLF TOURNEY, misleading as they are, would be as convincing as some of the headlines about Lance.
Shoehorning Them In
There’s a larger point here, which is that the way officials are morally sized up in America today is askew. Narrow points of law are the prevailing standard, but the kind of broader evaluative judgments that are more important and ring more true are rare indeed—when they’re made, it’s usually by shoehorning them into the legal codes. Thus Lance’s flights could be commented on in a gee-whiz tone, with no recognition of what might be called the culture of company planes, while, for example, Henry Ford II can raise nary an eyebrow by announcing that he knew about a deadly flaw in his Torinos for four years before doing anything about it.
Certainly “everybody does it” isn’t high on the list of great excuses, and the Lances of the world usually don’t need extraordinary doses of sympathy. But even if you believe businessmen are the last people who need any special pleading, it’s still true that broad moral standards are often a better measure by which to judge people than narrow legal ones. At The Washington Monthly, where sympathy for businessmen and officials who break the law traditionally has not run high, we learned this in a dramatic way several months back.
It was late January, and one of our former editors, James Fallows, was just getting settled in as chief speechwriter in the White House, thus becoming, among other things, the first high government official with whom we’ve ever felt total empathy. A year and a half earlier, Fallows had written a self-critical article in these pages about how he starved himself back in 1970 to escape the draft and the Vietnam war; he attacked the callousness of his generation of college students, who almost all got draft exemptions while letting their poorer and dumber contemporaries go off and die in Southeast Asia. Fallows’ own way out of the draft was far more legitimate than most people’s, and his statements of contrition about it were practically the only ones we’ve seen.
The article was widely reprinted in newspapers in late 1975, but in January of this year it resurfaced in the right-wing weekly, Human Events. In a story called “If You Liked Ted Sorensen, You’ll Love James Fallows,” Human Events quoted liberally from the original Washington Monthly article and said Fallows had violated a section of the draft law. In itself that was no cause for concern, but then it came out that The Washington Post had a story in the works that would quote the Human Events piece’s citation of illegality. Whether Fallows actually broke a law is uncertain, and Jimmy Carter had already both pardoned draft evaders generally and dismissed Fallows’ particular case as unimportant, but we are worriers and we were convinced Fallows was finished. We imagined a screaming headline (CARTER AIDE BROKE DRAFT LAW), followed by a quiet resignation in disgrace.
Well, after a day of total panic it turned out that the Post decided not to do the story after all (it had already written about the matter when Fallows was first appointed, so a second story was deemed unnecessary), and all was well. But here was a case where, even if Fallows had broken the letter of a law, he was clearly off the hook morally—everyone of his age had done the same thing, and he was one of a very few who felt bad about it. But a story on the lawbreaking would have completely obscured any more general accounting of his fitness for office, when the general accounting would have been far more telling.
That seems to be the case most of the time in public controversies these days. When Sorensen was shot down as a prospective CIA director, it was allegedly because he had been a conscientious objector and had asked for (and been denied) a questionable tax deduction. These charges were so out of left field that it was plain there was some other, qualitative objection to Sorensen’s appointment—wouldn’t it have been better to know what it was and whether it was valid?
Again, when Greg Schneiders’ chances of being Carter’s appointments secretary were torpedoed, his stated sin was something it was terribly hard to care about—as a marginal small businessman in his early twenties, he had bounced a few checks. Even in cases where an official’s larger wrong is clear, it is often obscured by the legal minutiae of the case. In October, for instance, Walter Pincus wrote an excellent story in the Post about Midge Costanza holding a fundraising party to pay off old campaign debts while on the White House staff—but the Post’s headline focused on the single minor point of the story that seemed to involve actual law-breaking, which was Costanza’s failure to file a report about the party with the Federal Election Commission on time.
In all these examples, as in Lance’s, there is the sense that the most widely stated objections to the controversial figure are some sort of metaphor of what is really wrong with him. In cases like that, if the metaphor is taken at face value it’s unfair to the person involved; and if the real problems are ignored, it’s unfair to the taxpayers whom he’s supposed to be serving.