As you peruse accounts of veteran New York Times reporter Adam Clymer’s recent death at age 81, you might enjoy revisiting his 2008 conversation with Carolina Journal Radio. The conversation focused his book on the politics surrounding the controversial Panama Canal treaty.
Kokai: A lot of people will remember that the Panama Canal Treaty, and turning over the Panama Canal … to Panama, was a big issue in the 1970s. Why is it still of interest today?
Clymer: Well, I argue in the book that this was the occasion for the rise of the conservative movement – that the issue kept [Ronald] Reagan alive in the 1976 campaign. It won a whole bunch of Senate seats for Republicans so that, when Reagan became president in 1981, he had a majority to work with in the Senate. And then it provided a laboratory for a number of the political techniques that we see today – single-issue ads, independent spending, ads to attack a candidate before there’s anyone running against him – and that it was the occasion for a lot of important things in American politics.
Kokai: In fact, in the book, you say the Panama Canal no longer divides Panama, but the fissures it opened 30 years ago have widened. They divide the United States.
Clymer: Well, I think so. I think it’s one of the things that contributed significantly to the great partisan division we have – where people are much less likely to find consensus and work for common ground…But, you know, the Congress and the Senate, even more than you might expect, is a very partisan institution these days. It really wasn’t in the ‘70s. This treaty wouldn’t have been passed without the help of Republicans, even though most Republicans were against it. Heck, most of the public in general was against it. But Howard Baker, an interesting character, did something I’ve never seen in the 40-odd years of covering the Senate – a plausible presidential candidate doing something that he was told by people he trusted would keep him from being nominated. He supported the treaties and then made sure they passed. That kind of thing doesn’t happen these days.