Revisiting the Debate over the 'Big Ditch'

Thirty years after the congressional debate over the Panama Canal Treaty, Adam Clymer's book, Drawing the Line at the Big Ditch, makes the case that the issue helped make the Reagan Revolution possible. Adam Clymer, Robert Siegel and his co-host from 30 years ago, Linda Wertheimer, remember the historic debate.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Thirty years ago, the U.S. Senate debated the future of the Panama Canal. That masterpiece of early 20th-century American engineering was still owned and operated by the U.S. The land along its banks was called the Canal Zone - a strip of sovereign U.S. soil that cut the country of Panama in half.

In 1978, the Senate debated two treaties that would give the zone and the canal to the Panamanians, but leave the U.S. with the right to intervene, to defend the waterway. The debate was historic and seemingly endless. It went on for 10 weeks. Here's Kansas Senator Robert Dole.

(Soundbite of archived broadcast)

Senator ROBERT DOLE (Republican, Kansas): The die is cast, and we were told on the Senate floor, some of us who would have voted for the treaties, we couldn't add one word as an amendment.

SEIGEL: We can hear what Senator Dole said because it was a historic debate in more than one sense. It was on the radio every day, on public radio. More about that in a moment.

First, the political context and legacy of the debates. Adam Clymer has written a new book about them called "Drawing the Line at the Big Ditch." Thirty years ago, he was covering those debates for The New York Times. At issue was control of not just a canal, but a legacy of American power and ingenuity.

Mr. ADAM CLYMER (Author, "Drawing the Line at the Big Ditch: The Panama Canal Treaties and the Rise of the Right"): To most Americans, the Panama Canal was a heroic thing that they had learned about in school. We conquered the jungle. We conquered disease. We did it when the French failed. And it was a spectacular achievement. So why give it away, and moreover the context is by 1978, almost everyone had figured out that we had lost the war in Vietnam. And all right, we lost to a communist power supplied by Russians or Chinese or whatever. That was one thing, but why on Earth should we give something up to this puny little country in Central America?

SIEGEL: Well, President Jimmy Carter's reasoning was, the best way to secure the canal was to give it to the Panamanians. It would become their great national asset rather than a constant irritant to their national pride.

The most important voice against that reasoning was Ronald Reagan. In 1978, he was between runs for the GOP presidential nomination. Conservative Republicans seized on the issue of the canal. They said the Democrats were making a giveaway of a vital strategic asset. Adam Clymer says that even though both treaties were ultimately approved, the issue netted the GOP right wing about five Senate seats, and he thinks we still live with the consequences of that debate.

Mr. CLYMER: The canal no longer divides Panama, but it helps divide the United States. It's produced campaign tactics, utter partisanship on almost any foreign policy issue that comes down the pike, and revitalized conservative movement that helped elect Ronald Reagan, gave him a Senate with a majority that enabled him to get things done. And its tactics live on today.

SIEGEL: And something else lives on today from the Panama Canal Treaty debate.

(Soundbite of archived broadcast)

LINDA WERTHEIMER: From National Public Radio in Washington, the Senate debates the Panama Canal Treaties.

SIEGEL: If you are under 40, you may think it's routine to hear the broadcast of a congressional debate. But in 1978, many hearings had been broadcast but never a floor debate.

WERTHEIMER: Today is the first time in our 200-year history that the debates in the Senate will be heard far beyond the chamber and its visitors' gallery.

SIEGEL: My colleague, Linda Wertheimer, broadcast daily from the Senate gallery, inside the chamber overlooking the floor. When the senators took a break, she was joined by a young broadcaster who shared a cramped booth with dueling expert commentators at NPR headquarters across town.

(Soundbite of archived broadcast)

WERTHEIMER: Robert?

SIEGEL: Linda, we'll be using those breaks in the debate to provide some perspective on the speeches we'll be hearing. And on the subject of all this debate, the Panama Canal...

That's right. That is my voice minus 30 years, plus a lot of nicotine and a lot of pretentiousness. It was a formative experience for me, for Linda and for NPR. Some senators had wanted a televised debate, others were opposed to that. Radio-only was the solution championed by the Senate majority leader, Robert Byrd of West Virginia.

Senator ROBERT BYRD (Democrat, West Virginia): National Public Radio is reporting the developments of the debate until 5 o'clock in the afternoons at the time of the presentation of the news.

SIEGEL: Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia. Thirty years ago, Linda, time flies when you're having fun.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: It's extraordinary to think about it. A Senate debate with the Senate actually in session, actually voting on the air, which opened the way for C-SPAN. After the Senate got used to the idea of hearing itself on the air all the time, they decided they liked it.

SIEGEL: Well, you had spent a lot of time covering the Senate before this broadcast and then you watched the senators and saw how they behaved when they, in fact, were being broadcast. What was the difference?

WERTHEIMER: Well, the main difference, I think, was a certain amount of grandstanding. Senators who might not necessarily have done anything except just say two or three words about why they were or were not going to support the treaty and then submit the rest of their statement to the record decided to read the thing in full. And, of course, the Senate has no limits on debate. So, in full, it could have been hours and sometimes it was.

SIEGEL: You were responsible for this.

WERTHEIMER: Yeah, I did it. I did it. And it was a terrible thing and I regret it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: You also - remember when you told us how many senators were actually there at that moment.

WERTHEIMER: I just listed the senators who were on the floor. And all of a sudden, there were more senators on the floor.

SIEGEL: Because there were only five or six who were on the floor at the time, if that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: Some of them had things to do. But still I think they were a little mortified to think their voters out in - wherever they were from, knew that they were not there, so they came.

SIEGEL: What I recall is, when the debate began and we all got a chance to finally hear what the United States Senate sounded like - in my memory, it's Senator Allen of Alabama who posed a series of knotty parliamentary questions to the chair.

(Soundbite of archived broadcast)

Senator JAMES ALLEN (Democrat, Alabama): As to an article and to have a vote on such article before amendments of any sort to the next succeeding article could be offered or considered in the Senate.

SIEGEL: Yeah. And nobody except the senators and you knew what they were talking about.

WERTHEIMER: And I - I mean, it was just by the grace of God that I was able to explain what those things were.

(Soundbite of archived broadcast)

Vice President WALTER MONDALE (Democrat, Minnesota): Amendments to the treaty are considered article by article...

Sen. ALLEN: Yes, and subject to amendment.

Vice Pres. MONDALE: But each article itself is not acted on. There is no vote on the article as such.

Sen. ALLEN: Yes, but all amendments are considered. All amendments from the floor are considered before you turn to the next succeeding article.

Vice Pres. MONDALE: The chair accordingly does not find it appropriate to answer the senator's inquiry.

Sen. ALLEN: I thank the chair for his non-answer to my inquiry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: And that was Vice President Mondale, president of the senate, responding to Senator Allen. And...

WERTHEIMER: And he has a clerk who is standing just below him. And the clerk is, "(mumble-mumble) articles," then he repeats exactly what the man said. Of course, after a few times he was able to say it without anybody having to tell him.

SIEGEL: Except for, I think, the most closely contested votes on Supreme Court nominations or some, a couple of very, very narrow Senate votes, it's been very rare that someone other than C-SPAN has made a special program out of an entire Senate debate on anything.

WERTHEIMER: That's right. It's a very unusual thing to do, although we have that privilege now. C-SPAN is an unmediated offering of the debate. There is no commentary and they don't interrupt it at all. We can, as other broadcasters can, talk about what is going on, interrupt the debate and talk about it. But no one can and no one has since we did it, sit in the chamber of the Senate.

SIEGEL: And if somebody came to you today and said we've got a great broadcast coming up, it just requires you to sit for 10 weeks up in the gallery of the United States Senate and whisper on occasion, in between speeches, and look at what's going on.

WERTHEIMER: You know, I don't know how we did it. I remember that I lived - at the recommendation of one of the executives at NPR, I basically lived on pound cake. He said it's got a lot of eggs in it for protein, a lot of sugar in it for energy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Linda Wertheimer, thanks a lot for reminiscing with us.

WERTHEIMER: Those were great days.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Linda Wertheimer, weaned from pound cake, recalling the U.S. Senate debate on the Panama Canal Treaties in 1978.

(Soundbite of archived broadcast)

Sen. ALLEN: I ask unanimous consent that the documents, quote, "documents implementing the Panama Canal Treaty," close quote. And the, quote, "other documents," quote, identified on page...

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