By Tom Baxter
The first couple of times I was asked to write an advance obit for Bert Lance, back at the AJC several years ago, I refused to do it. There was no way, I argued, that I could be objective about him. And I certainly can’t now that he’s gone.
I owed him tremendously. When I went back to writing after several years as an editor, covering the runup to the 1988 presidential campaign, I got on the list of people Lance kept in contact with by phone on a more or less daily basis from his office in Calhoun. We had a mutual friend in John Mashek, who over the years wrote for UPI, U.S. News and World Report, and the AJC. Mashek also introduced me to Jack Germond, the legendary political writer who died the day before Lance.
All these were pols of the old school, plugged into the fine intricacies of American politics, on a first-name basis with party chairs down to the county level from across the country, and famous for their Roladexes.
There may be six degrees of separation, but Lance’s phone tree must have shortened that circuit considerably. He was great to talk with, because he might just have gotten off the phone with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the chair of the Texas Democratic Party, a writer for a news magazine or the former chair of the Republican National Committee. I seldom quoted him, but there’s no telling how many stories he tipped me off to in those days.
As one political campaign slipped into to another over the years, that regular conversation, conducted almost exclusively over the phone, often between Calhoun and some political outpost in Iowa, New Hampshire or elsewhere in the country, became something else as well.
“I’ve had so many failures that it’s unusual to talk about successes,” Lance said, when I finally interviewed him for that obit I dreaded writing. “But I would hope it could be said I had the ability to listen to people and understand what they were talking about.”
That was profoundly true. The man was a superb sounding board, and not just for a political columnist, I suspect, but a great many of those he stayed in regular contact with. You knew where he was coming from, but he was fair and temperate in his judgment. He could give the benefit of his experience and hard knocks without letting his experience and hard knocks get in the way of listening to you.
The big controversies of Lance’s great rise and fall were for the most part behind him when I got to know him, which I’m sure made it easier for us to get along without too many journalistic complications.
But when the subject of the day was scandal, as it was during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, that sounding board resonated with the vibrancy of a vintage cello.
He often spoke of the “toe test”: “Go out on the front porch of the house, turn the Washington Post over with your big toe, and if your name’s above the fold, you know you’re not going to have a good day.”
Lance had a keen feel for the rhythms of public life, but his experience had trained him to an especially fine understanding of what it is like when the glare of the spotlight suddenly becomes uncomfortable.
He had a deep and nonpartisan sympathy for anyone who had gotten their butt kicked in the public arena. When Lance’s old grade school classmate, Zell Miller, beat Johnny Isakson in one of the most hard-knuckled governor’s races of modern times, Lance sent the defeated Republican a hand-written letter encouraging him to keep his spirits up and remain engaged in public life.
At the funeral in Calhoun Saturday afternoon, Isakson sat behind the pulpit a few feet from Zell and Shirley Miller. Former governors Joe Frank Harris and Roy Barnes were in the same rows. Another former governor, former President Jimmy Carter, was among Lance’s eulogists, along with former Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor Jim Minter, Dick Inman, a Calhoun friend, and son David Lance. Another son, Rev. Stuart Lance, gave the closing prayer.
It’s telling that William Safire, who was Lance’s accuser in the banking scandal which led to his departure as Jimmy Carter’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, would later become a friend and include Lance in a book about modern day examples of the Book of Job. Safire admired the way Lance had borne his fall from grace without bitterness, and gone about being a positive influence in the aftermath.
Lance became known for one of his sayings, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Another was “When you find yourself in a hole, quit digging.” That was a piece of wisdom he had frequent occasion to reflect upon.
There was another Methodist minister in Lance’s family tree, and that side of him mixed with the small town banker and the political wheeler-dealer. I’m not sure which of those sides of him inspired the deepest affection in me. He was no angel, but he was a man of exceptional thoughtfulness, rare perception and true kindness.
I’ll always miss the low rumble of his voice on the other end of the line.