Decades have passed since debate about ownership of the Panama Canal generated headlines, but the heated canal debates of the 1970s continue to affect American politics today. That’s a key theme in the book Drawing the Line at the Big Ditch: The Panama Canal Treaties and the Rise of the Right. Author Adam Clymer, former chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times, discussed the book recently with Mitch Kokai for Carolina Journal Radio. (Click here to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)

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.

Kokai: Let’s talk about a couple of ways in which the Panama Canal issue affected politics in North Carolina, or involving North Carolina. First, the Ronald Reagan presidential campaign of 1976 – what role did the Panama Canal play?

Clymer: Well, before the North Carolina primary in 1976, Ronald Reagan had lost five primaries in a row. His campaign was really on its heels. His campaign manager, John Sears, was secretly negotiating a withdrawal with the Ford folks. Nancy Reagan wanted him to drop out. She thought he was just being humiliated. And the campaign was broke. It had – the campaign plane had to wait on the tarmac in Los Angeles before coming to North Carolina so they could make sure there was enough money to pay for the charter. When he came here, he hit the Canal, day after day, both in person and on television – we built it, we bought it, it’s ours, and we’re going to keep it – that was his slogan. And, to everybody’s surprise, including Reagan’s, he won in North Carolina. He kept on using the issue, and he narrowed the gap so that at one point, he was even ahead of Ford. So he was only a very narrow loser. If he had lost badly, I argue in the book, he probably wouldn’t have become president, and that would have been a significant setback for the conservative movement.

Kokai: There also was quite a bit of a role four years later in the Senate race here.

Clymer: Absolutely. The Senate race in 1980 in North Carolina was between John East, a relatively unknown politics professor from East Carolina University, and a well-known political figure, Senator Robert Morgan, who had held various other offices. Morgan was a moderate-to-conservative Democrat. He’d voted for the Canal treaties. He was persuaded by the CIA that that was a smart thing to do. The campaign against him, run by allies of Jesse Helms and Helms himself, was almost entirely about Morgan [having] voted to give away our Canal. And he lost. There were five of those races where I argue in the book that, if the issue had not been around, or if the Democrat in question had voted for the treaties, he wouldn’t have lost and the Republicans wouldn’t have had a majority. There’s one more North Carolina angle to this story. Reagan, who made a great issue of it in 1976, was first alerted to the whole issue by Jesse Helms in 1974. He was down here making a speech for Helms in ’74, and he met him, and Helms warned him the State Department was trying to give the Canal away. And that got Reagan interested in it.

Kokai: Very interesting. So, talking about the race involving Robert Morgan and John East, and some of the other races – the other four that you mentioned – what are some of the tactics that were used in those races that have now become staples of American politics?

Clymer: Well, one is [that] basically, John East ran a single-issue campaign – you know, don’t look at somebody’s overall record, he voted wrong on one issue that matters to you – vote against him. Well, we’ve seen lots of single-issue campaigns in the years since. Another thing we see is the idea of softening up a candidate before the election. That didn’t happen so much in the Morgan case, but in the case of Frank Church in Idaho, for example, there was something called the “Anyone But Church Committee.” They ran ads attacking Church, implying that anyone would be better than Church. And they took a lot of hide out of him on that. Independent spending – we hear a lot about and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. They spent millions in 2004. Similar groups [spent] a lot of money this time. Well, the first independent spending was right here in North Carolina in the ’76 campaign. American Conservative Union spent $16,000 – a drop in the bucket even if you adjust it for inflation – on ads saying, “Vote for Ronald Reagan so you can keep the Canal.” And that’s where that practice – which many people think is not a particularly healthy one, if constitutional anyway – got started.

Kokai: So, the Panama Canal, an issue that is done and gone, basically has still had repercussions years and years later. Do you think we’ll still be talking about some of the things that came out of the Panama Canal [debate] 20, 30 years from now?

Clymer: Well, you know, we were talking about those things without connecting them to the Canal five years ago. I hope my book leads people to remember the role of the Canal in this thing. But, yeah, we’ll still see those techniques and others, but those techniques will go on. And the thing that’s more important, I think, is the sense of partisan division, which arose out of this. One of the things that the conservative movement wanted to do in the course of the Canal fight was not only to defeat Democrats but to defeat moderate Republicans, some of whom supported the Canal. They didn’t really defeat very many of them on the issue, but those people have disappeared from the Republicans in the Senate. It’s now – these partisan divisions are much more divided – and [it is] a less civil body than it used to be. And I think that’s something that – it’s not the fault of anyone who is on one side of the issue or another – but it’s one of the consequences of the Canal fight.