61. Editorial Note

On December 28, 1977, President Jimmy Carter participated in an interview with Tom Brokaw of NBC News, Bob Schieffer of CBS News, Robert MacNeil of the Public Broadcasting Service and co-host of “The MacNeil–Lerher Report,” and Barbara Walters of ABC News. The interview took place in the Red Room of the White House, beginning at 8 p.m., and was broadcast live on radio and television. The President began the broadcast by noting:

“This year we have had fireside chats and television programs and telephone call-in shows and press conferences twice a month from almost every State in the Nation. And I’ve been very pleased to stay in touch with the American people.

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“Tonight we have four distinguished news reporters from the four major networks in our country. And I want to welcome you here as another opportunity for me to speak to the American people with tough interrogations from those who understand our country very well.”

The President subsequently fielded questions about his upcoming trip (see Document 60), the Middle East, the potential for a strategic arms limitation agreement in 1978, and domestic issues related to the Federal Reserve and the economy. In response to a question posed by Walters as to the administration’s top priorities for 1978, Carter indicated that the status of the Panama Canal Treaty existed as one of the most important issues to resolve:

“About 75 years ago in the middle of the night the American Secretary of State signed the Panama Canal Treaty that presently is in existence. No Panamanian has ever signed it; no Panamanian ever saw it before it was signed. It was signed by a Frenchman who benefitted financially from the terms of the treaty on behalf of the Panamanians.

“That treaty gave us a chance to do a tremendous job in building the Panama Canal, keeping it open for international shipping. It’s helped our country a lot. It’s something of which we can be proud.

“Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy recognized that the present treaty was inadequate. President Johnson started negotiations to change it. Presidents Nixon and Ford continued. And we concluded it this year.

“It’s one of the most difficult political questions that we’ll have to deal with. It’s going to take a lot of time in the Congress to pass it.

“What we wanted was one that treated us and Panama fairly, and we got it. We wanted a treaty that did not put a financial burden on the American taxpayer, and we got it. We wanted treaties that would guarantee proper operation of the Panama Canal itself, for us and for foreign shipping, and we got it. We wanted treaties that would also guarantee us permanently the right to take what action we think necessary to keep the canal safe, to defend it, and to keep it open for us to use, and we got it.

“We wanted treaties—two treaties there are—that would give us the right for expeditious passage in time of need or emergency, for our ships to go to the head of the line and go through the canal without delay, and we got it. We wanted treaties also that would be acceptable in the eyes of the international community, particularly in Latin America, and we got them.

“So, this is what we have tried to do under four Presidents, and we have finally succeeded. And I would say that would be one of the most difficult challenges that we have politically this year. It is absolutely crucial that the Senate ratify these treaties, and I think the terms are very favorable to us and to Panama.

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“Mr. Brokaw. You’ve got all that in the treaty, Mr. President. Do you have the votes in the Senate?

“The President. I think we will get the votes in the Senate.

“Mr. Brokaw. Do you not now have them?

“The President. I can’t say for sure that we do because many Senators still haven’t expressed their commitment to me or their opinion. But I was talking to President Ford this past week, who’s strongly supportive of the treaties, along with Secretary Kissinger and others, and he said that in his speeches to college groups and others around the Nation, that he is getting an increasingly favorable response from the audience. I think public opinion is building up for the treaties as they know the terms of them.

“Mr. MacNeil. Could we interpret this as the beginning of a new campaign on your part to get out and sell the treaty? You’ve been criticized for having left the ground to the opposition somewhat. Are you going to make a major effort personally to try and sell it?

“The President. Yes. I consider it one of my most important responsibilities.

“Mr. MacNeil. And you can meet the deadline that President Torrijos has set of April, which he says is urgent, and that Panama’s patience could be exhausted.

“The President. Well, no, I don’t feel any constraint to operate under a deadline. But both Senator Byrd and I and the leaders of the Senate all hope that we can resolve that issue early in the year, certainly I think by April.

“Ms. Walters. On that—since, by the way, just to get back to my original questions—it seems that your priorities next year are very similar to your priorities this year, energy and the economy. But in October, you and President Torrijos issued a statement—a joint statement to remove doubts about the rights of the United States to defend the neutrality of the canal and also the right of ships to pass promptly through it. A number of Senators have felt that they might be more comfortable with this if it were actually written into the treaty.

“Would you be willing to see the treaty amended so that it would reflect this understanding, this statement between you and General Torrijos?

“The President. No. I think it would be good to have a signed agreement between me and President Torrijos, and he has indicated he would be glad to sign that statement that was made, and of course, I would too. I think the Senate could express an understanding that the treaty was being approved by them with the understanding that this was a proper interpretation. But to actually amend the treaty would re [Page 283] quire Panama to have another referendum on the subject, and they’ve already had one.

“Many people in Panama think that the treaties are too favorable to the United States. And I don’t think it would be fair to them after they negotiated in good faith to cause them to have a completely new referendum. I would certainly hate to have two ratification votes in the Senate, separated by several months. So, I think that the Senate can very well express its understanding of what the treaties mean. We can exchange documents with the Panamanian leader. To amend the treaties, though, I think would be inadvisable.” (Public Papers: Carter, 1977, Book II, pages 2195–2196)

The President responded to several additional questions related to domestic political issues, criticism of his leadership, and his Presidential style before the interview concluded. The full text of the interview is ibid., pages 2187–2202. Briefing materials prepared by Press Secretary Jody Powell, Special Assistant Barry Jagoda, and Chief Speechwriter James Fallows in preparation for the interview are in the Carter Library, Office of the Staff Secretary, Handwriting File, Presidential File, Box 65, 12/28/77 [1].