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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.

While he notified Vice President Bush and other members of the National Security Council, Meese waited for more than five hours before waking the president, who "listened to the news approvingly, then went back to sleep," Cannon wrote in "President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime." The episode exposed Reagan to a barrage of criticism for being out of touch and damaged Meese's standing in the administration.

The episode also made future presidential advisers more sensitive to the public-relations dimensions of middle-of-the-night "crises." When Brent Scowcroft became national security adviser for the second time in 1989, he remembers, the first thing the media wanted to know was under what circumstances would he wake up the president.

"I had a very simple formula: If it affected the life of a U.S. citizen, you woke the president," said Kenneth M. Duberstein, Reagan's last chief of staff. But he said: "At 3 o'clock in the morning, unless there is a nuclear holocaust coming, there is not much the president has to decide. What you are doing is starting to put into gear the response of the U.S. government on behalf of the president, not necessarily by the president."

Kissinger pointed to public perceptions in explaining why, as national security adviser, he woke Richard M. Nixon in 1970 to tell him the Apollo 13 spacecraft had been crippled. (This came after a brief "jurisdictional" dispute with Chief of Staff H.R. "Bob" Haldeman over which of them was the right person to call the president, Kissinger wryly recalls.)

"The question was: What could the president do about it? The answer was: Nothing," Kissinger said. But, he added: "We couldn't tell the public that we had not alerted the president. . . . It is important the public has a sense that the president is on top of the situation."

President Bush has rarely been disturbed while asleep, according to current and former White House officials -- largely, they say, because events have not merited it. One exception came on the night following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, after Bush had returned to the White House and he and the first lady were roused by Secret Service agents alarmed by reports of an unidentified plane in the area. The Bushes were moved to a secure location before the incident was found to be a false alarm.

Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer tells of another episode when the president was awakened unexpectedly, this time when Reagan died in 2004 while Bush was traveling in Paris. Bush had gone to bed knowing that the former president had died, and planned to make a statement in the morning.

But Fleischer, who had left his White House job by then, was watching the television coverage of Reagan's death -- it was late in the day on the East Coast -- and called then-Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. to suggest that the president might want to say something sooner. And that is what happened: Bush got out of bed, dressed and made a statement after midnight in Europe, Fleischer recalled.

Bush's generally more laid-back posture appears to contrast with that of some of his predecessors, especially Lyndon B. Johnson and Bill Clinton, both night owls who seemed to invite interaction with their aides long past midnight. John Podesta, one of Clinton's chiefs of staff, recalls waking up his boss on several occasions.

But just as often the communication went the other way: "I would get calls at 2 o'clock in the morning," Podesta said. "The phone would ring, the White House operator would say the president is calling, and I would be stone asleep. . . . He would be watching C-SPAN in the middle of the night, and he would say, 'I think we ought to make this argument.' "

Presidential historian Robert Dallek raised a different issue posed by nighttime decision-making -- the role of unelected advisers -- in his volume last year on the partnership between Kissinger and Nixon, which made use of thousands of pages of previously inaccessible transcripts of Kissinger's phone calls.

During the 1973 Middle East war, a time when Nixon was under intense stress over Watergate, Kissinger and other senior aides agreed to raise the level of readiness of U.S. military forces in the middle of the night -- while Nixon was sleeping, according to Dallek. It was part of an ultimately successful effort to get the Soviet Union to back off threats to get involved militarily in the conflict.

In interviews, Kissinger and then-White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig denied the account. "It was the right decision, and it was approved by the president beforehand," said Haig, who says he always alerted the president to questions of war and peace. Otherwise, he said, "you are taking responsibility for something you are not entitled to."

But Dallek said in an interview: "The only conclusion you can draw is we were lucky things came out all right. They did not act in an . . . unwise manner. But it does raise concerns that unelected officials would bypass the elected president."

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

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