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Forty years ago at this time, the U.S. Senate was engaged in a lengthy and heated debate.

At issue were the highly contentious Panama Canal Treaties.

Today, the Panama Canal barely registers as a political concern. But it was a hot issue then. It is hard to imagine current-day President Trump, with his hard-edged nationalism, "America first" attitude and disdain for international agreements, would have favored the canal treaties. Interestingly, the Trump organization has been locked in a bitter business battle with the company that owns a Trump-branded Panama City hotel and wants to drop it.

The treaties were signed by President Carter and Panama's leader Omar Torrijos in September 1977. They would give Panama control of the Canal by the year 2000 while the United States retained the right to ensure its neutrality. At the signing ceremony, Carter said the treaties "mark the commitment of the United States to the belief that fairness, not force, should be at the heart of our dealings with the rest of the world."

However, polls at the time showed that up to 87 percent of the American public opposed relinquishing control of the canal -- or "giving away" the canal as many treaty opponents claimed. Although most Americans considered the canal a source of national pride, they knew little about the canal's history and operation. U.S. control had become a festering issue in Panama, with Panamanians chafing under the terms of the 1903 treaty giving the U.S. jurisdiction over the canal and adjacent 10-mile wide "zone." Ronald Reagan, seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 1976, introduced the canal issue into his campaign. His customary assertion was: "We built it, we paid for it, it's ours and we're going to keep it." Even though Gerald Ford won the 1976 GOP nomination, Reagan had made the canal a national issue. When Carter was elected, he surprised many by making treaty revision a priority.

Winning the necessary two-thirds approval of the treaties presented a daunting challenge for Senate leaders Robert Byrd, a Democrat in his first year as majority leader, and Republican Howard Baker, in his first year as minority leader. When the treaties went to the Senate for advice and consent, Byrd told Carter, "You are not going to get a treaty without me and you are not going to get a treaty without Senator Baker."

And, indeed, the two led the way in gaining approval. They persuaded the Foreign Relations Committee to send the treaties to the full Senate without amendment. Then they enlisted 76 senators as co-sponsors of the "leadership amendments."

Arkansas political figures had an unusual but important role in the political battle.

Arkansas Sen. Dale Bumpers considered the issue the hottest of his career. Still in his first term, he voted for the treaties, putting himself on the wrong side of thousands who contacted his office in opposition to the "canal giveaway."

Even as late as 1986, when he was successfully seeking re-election, Bumpers' Republican opponent Asa Hutchinson (now Arkansas governor) strongly criticized Bumpers' vote "to give away the Panama Canal," calling approval of the treaties "a shameful event." Hutchinson's campaign literature showed a ship emblazoned with a hammer and sickle apparently passing through the canal and said that "the number of ships from Communist countries using the canal has doubled," as if Bumpers and those supporting the treaties were responsible.

Bumpers' Arkansas colleague, Democrat Sen. Kaneaster Hodges, was an important pro-treaty vote in 1978, particularly because the man he replaced, John L. McClellan, staunchly supported the U.S. role in Panama. His daughter worked as a court clerk in the Canal Zone for 30 years. He co-authored with Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina a 1974 resolution opposing negotiating a new treaty. Only weeks before the Senate was to begin debating the treaties, McClellan died. Arkansas Gov. David Pryor appointed Hodges to serve the remainder of McClellan's term and Hodges became a treaty supporter whose vote was critical, replacing a certain no vote.

Formal Senate debate began Feb. 8, 1978, with basically all other business set aside. Treaty opponents centered their efforts on getting approval for amendments phrased in such a way that senators would find them difficult to turn down, but they would have effectively killed the treaties. In all, 145 amendments, 26 reservations, 18 understandings, and three declarations were proposed and 88 voted on. None passed that were unacceptable to the Senate leadership. Despite that, there were many tense moments during the nine weeks of debate.

Approval of the second treaty came on April 18, 1978, with 16 Republicans joining 52 Democrats, one vote more than the required two-thirds, as had been the case a month earlier on the Neutrality Treaty. Passage of the treaties ranks among the greatest U.S. foreign policy successes of the modern era.

Opponents continued to snipe at the treaties in the following years, claiming, for example, that they opened the way for China to control the canal. In 1999, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) asserted: "If we do nothing, I can guarantee you that within a decade a communist Chinese regime that hates democracy and sees America as its primary enemy will dominate the tiny country of Panama and then dominate the Panama Canal." Like much of the opposition to the treaties, that forecast was vastly overblown. The canal has operated smoothly and was recently expanded.

Democratic leader Byrd conceived the winning strategy and led the fight. However, Baker, the Republican leader, had an instrumental role and worked closely with Byrd, who said Baker's role was an example of courageous leadership -- not driven by partisan rigidity. Such courage and bipartisan leadership, seen 40 years ago in a battle over a political hot potato, is sorely lacking in today's Senate.

Commentary on 03/14/2018

Print Headline: What leadership can do

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