Late Calls Rarely Merit Snap Decisions

By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 16, 2008

There is no dispute, as a dramatic campaign ad from Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign suggests, that presidents get plenty of phone calls at 3 a.m.

A sleeping Ronald Reagan was alerted early in the morning to what turned out to be the accidental shoot-down of an Iranian passenger plane. George H.W. Bush was informed after he went to bed of an apparent coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Bill Clinton received word in the middle of the night that negotiations had broken down in the case of Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boy whose relatives were battling the federal government to prevent him from returning home.

But in none of these cases were presidents asked to make major decisions. Instead, former White House advisers say, these calls -- and countless others like them -- were largely aimed at keeping the president informed of critical developments, particularly ones that might cause embarrassment if the public learned that a commander in chief had slept through the episode undisturbed.

"In my experience, I cannot think, off the top of my head, of a snap decision that had to be made in the middle of the night," said Henry A. Kissinger, the former secretary of state and national security adviser. In fact, he said in an interview, "I think that one should reduce the number of snap decisions to be made."

As the image of a sleeping child flashes across the screen, the announcer in the Clinton ad intones: "There's a phone in the White House and it's ringing. Something's happening in the world. Your vote will decide who answers that call, whether it's someone who already knows the world's leaders, knows the military, someone tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world."

While the scenario is not inconceivable, former presidential advisers and historians say that it misses the point that good presidential decision-making plays out over time, and in more mundane ways.

"It's a bit of a specious issue, somehow implying you need better judgment in the middle of the night," said onetime Clinton administration official David Rothkopf, author of a book on the National Security Council, and who describes himself as a Hillary Clinton supporter.

The recollections of Kissinger, senior advisers in both parties and presidential historians offer an interesting counterpoint to the suggestion by the Clinton ad that critical decisions are often made in the dead of night.

The situation that unfolded after the discovery of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba in October 1962, perhaps the greatest crisis of the Cold War, is a case in point.

As chronicled by historian Michael R. Beschloss in "The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963," National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy decided to wait until morning to tell President Kennedy that the CIA had aerial photos of the missiles. Bundy knew the president was tired after a late flight from New York, and he would later tell Kennedy that he concluded "a quiet evening and a night of sleep were the best preparation" for what would undoubtedly be a major crisis. Kennedy then took more than a week to craft a response with his advisers before going public with the news.

Fred I. Greenstein, the scholar of the presidency at Princeton University, said the episode "refutes the notion that presidents have to be on the job in a crisis situation the moment the crisis breaks. It shows that it might be good judgment involved in not waking people up. Presidents who desire to be up at all hours may not be wired in ways that are fully in sync with the needs of the job."

Of course, presidents have also seen the downside of their aides allowing them to sleep through the night. Perhaps the most famous episode came in 1981, when Navy fighters were confronted by Libyan jets and returned fire, downing the attackers. Reagan biographer Lou Cannon recounts that presidential adviser Edwin Meese III was in charge at the time and learned about the incident after the president and first lady had retired for the evening.

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