Lance was born in Gainesville, Georgia. His father, Thomas Jackson Lance, had served as president of Young Harris College in northeast Georgia, and in 1941 the family relocated to Calhoun, in Gordon County, when Lance’s father became superintendent of that city’s schools. Lance graduated from the University of Georgia in 1951. While a student at Georgia, he joined the Sigma Chi Fraternity. He attended graduate school at LSU in Baton Rouge and Rutgers University. While attending college he married LaBelle David, whose family owned the Calhoun First National Bank; they had four sons. After graduation Lance became a clerk at the bank, and within a decade became its president. He later served as president of the National Bank of Georgia in Atlanta from 1975 to 1977.
Lance became acquainted with Jimmy Carter during the latter’s time as Governor of Georgia, and served as State Highway Director during his administration. Lance ran to succeed Carter in 1974, but lost a bid for the Democratic nomination, finishing third in the first primary behind Lester Maddox and the eventual winner, George Busbee. During the campaign, Lance accrued campaign debts of nearly $600,000. Lance was an adviser to Carter during his successful 1976 presidential campaign. After Carter’s victory over President Gerald Ford, Lance was named Director of the Office of Management and the Budget (OMB). According to former OMB officials, it was well known in the department that Bert Lance and President Carter prayed together every morning.
Within six months, questions were raised by the press and Congress about mismanagement and corruption when Lance was Chairman of the Board of Calhoun First National Bank of Georgia. William Safire’s article written during this time, Carter’s Broken Lance, earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1978. It was an embarrassment for Carter’s administration, particularly as it occurred soon after President Nixon’s Watergate scandal and President Ford’s pardon of Nixon just before he could be impeached. To insure there was no hint of similar impropriety in the Carter administration, Lance resigned his position. Later, after a well-publicized trial in 1980, a jury acquitted Lance on nine charges, and didn’t decide two others.
In 1981, Lance returned to the Calhoun First National Bank as Chairman; he left in 1986. He then made something of a political comeback in 1982 when he was elected Chairman of the Georgia Democratic Party. In 1984, Walter Mondale – who was the Democratic candidate for U.S. President at the time – sought to name Lance chairman of the Democratic National Committee, but was forced to withdraw his name after opposition from Democratic party members. Lance’s appointment as general manager of the 1984 campaign lasted only a few weeks. Lance was an advisor to Jesse Jackson during Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign.
Lance is credited with popularizing the phrase “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, when he was quoted saying it in the May 1977 issue of the magazine Nation’s Business. The expression became widespread, and William Safire wrote that it “has become a source of inspiration to anti-activists.”
Lance was implicated in the BCCI scandal of the 1980s and early 1990s. He was involved in deals with notable BCCI luminaries Agha Hasan Abedi, Mochtar Riady, and Ghaith Pharaon and with BCCI’s largest borrower, Ponnapula Sanjeeva Prasad, and joined with Arkansas-based power investor Jackson Stephens in facilitating BCCI’s takeover of Financial General Bankshares. Lance and Stephens made millions in the wake of BCCI’s collapse. In January 1978, Lance sold his stock in National Bank of Georgia to Ghaith Pharaon, while on the same day, BCCI founder Agha Hasan Abedi paid off Lance’s $3.5 million loan at the First National Bank of Chicago. The following month, Lance helped BCCI with their hostile bid for Financial General Bankshares of Washington. The attempt failed, but three years later, BCCI secretly acquired the bank (renamed First American Bankshares) using 15 Arab investors as nominees. The next year, Lance introduced Jimmy Carter to Abedi. In 1987, First American Bankshares acquired National Bank of Georgia from Pharaon. BCCI was terminated in 1991, and it was subsequently revealed that the bank had engaged in many illegal activities, including secretly controlling several U.S. banks, in violation of federal banking statutes. Lance died on August 15, 2013 at his home in northwest Georgia at age 82. He had been in hospice care due to recent declining health.
- June, 03, 1931
- Gainesville, Georgia
- August, 15, 2013
- Calhoun, Georgia
- Fain Cemetery
- Calhoun, Georgia