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Bert Lance : A Seasoned Political Observer Explains Ins and Outs of the Process

March 08, 1992|David R. Gergen | David R. Gergen, editor-at-large for U.S. News & World Report, served as communications director in the Reagan White House from 1981 to 1983

WASHINGTON — A strong case can be made that, if Bert Lance had never become engulfed by financial and legal troubles, history might have treated the Democratic Party far more kindly over the past 15 years.

In 1976, Lance was a principal architect of the party's last successful run for the presidency and he soon joined his friend, Jimmy Carter, in Washington. Lance's importance to Carter far exceeded his official relationship as budget director: He was the President's right arm, dispensing sage advice and keeping the White House on an even keel.

When allegations arose that Lance had misapplied funds from a small bank he headed in Georgia, Carter agonized and finally let him go in September, 1977--a departure that seemed to mark a downward turn his presidency never recovered from. Lance bitterly contested charges thrown at him by federal banking regulators in the years since and felt vindicated in 1980, when a federal jury acquitted him of a number of charges and a federal judge threw out the rest.

These controversies, however, prevented him from playing as large a role in national life as his talents suggested. Perhaps more than any other non-elected leader of the party, he has understood the mind of the Southern voter and has known that only by regaining Southern support could the Democrats recapture the White House. In 1984, after winning the Democratic nomination, Walter F. Mondale tried to make Lance party chairman. But resistance from the party regulars was too much, and Lance settled for the lesser role of campaign chairman. Mondale wound up losing 49 states.

Lance remains one of the most sought-out men in the Democratic Party on politics in the South and around the country. William Safire, the New York Times columnist whose writings helped to bring him down, has become a friend and turns to him to take the political pulse. Jesse Jackson developed strong political ties to Lance and, during his campaigns, called him at all hours to talk.

Lance, 60, now runs an international financial consulting firm and lives with his family in Calhoun, Ga. He rarely gives press interviews but agreed to this special conversation, speaking from his home the day after the Georgia primary.

Question: How do you expect Super Tuesday to unfold for the Democrats?

Answer: I would think, in Mississippi and Louisiana, that Clinton does extremely well. You've been to Texas, so you've got a better feel for that than I have. But I would assume that he does well in Texas. If there is a battle in the South on Tuesday between Tsongas and Clinton--it will be in Florida.

Q: I can tell you that, in Texas, Tsongas has almost no presence at the moment.

A: So there's nobody else for them. There's no contest.

And Tsongas did fairly well in Georgia--when you consider that he hadn't even had a presence here until Friday night a week ago. So he got up close to 30%. If he had broken over 30%, he could have said, "I've done extremely well in the Southern state, and there are better things ahead."

But Super Tuesday in the South will not be a good day for him--except perhaps in Florida. If I were he, I would concentrate on Florida. But Clinton's spent a lot of time in Florida, and he's well financed. So I would think that he wins Florida also; where Tsongas gets something out of Rhode Island and Massachusetts and perhaps Delaware. So it's not a clean sweep. But the large number of delegates who would be out of Florida and Texas make a major difference.

Q: Does the fact that Clinton did as well among the long-established Georgia residents suggest that his problems, the charges of womanizing and draft evasion, have not caught hold in the South?

A: I don't know that you can really draw that conclusion. I think that argument will be made--but again, that hadn't been the focus of the campaign. Kerrey focused on the draft situation, but Kerrey went nowhere in Georgia, had no support, no organization. It says more to me that you have to have some semblance of an organization, and that you have to have a presence in a state, and the endorsement of the local elected leadership in order to get any support. That issue still has to be debated, to some extent.

Q: Clinton also had the support of the black leadership.

A: He had the black leadership--and the black vote. Jesse (Jackson) did not make an issue. Jesse took the high road about the flap that they had. So all of that caused Clinton to do very, very well in Georgia. I don't think anybody can say that he didn't do well.

But I do not believe those issues are behind him in a general election. That's where you get into the question of what happens then.

Q: Clinton seems to be getting the lower-income vote. The less educated. And he's getting a lot of the black vote. Whereas Tsongas seems to be getting the upper-income, better-educated vote. They seem to be splitting along class and income. Does that suggest to you that Clinton is building the traditional base of the Democratic Party?

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