Why Wake the President?

By George Lardner Jr.
Saturday, March 29, 2008

It's 3 a.m. Do you know where your president is?

If it's Hillary Clinton, her campaign has repeatedly assured us, she is just waiting to be woken, ready to address the latest crisis threatening our national security. If it's Barack Obama, her campaign implies, we are on the road to disaster. "Experience," we're told, is what counts when the president's phone rings.

But if history is any guide, Obama should go back to sleep. And so should Hillary.

If you doubt that, consider the example of the president who won the war to end all wars: Woodrow Wilson. He was "a master of sleeping," as his chief usher, Irwin H. "Ike" Hoover, attested. He could snooze at will during the day, for a few minutes and no more, but at night he "insisted on his rest and . . . and ordered that he never be disturbed."

Wilson's aides broke the rule only once. A crisis with Mexico arose, and the Navy secretary insisted that the president be woken to decide on a proposed course of action. Wilson let it be known that he would give his answer in the morning, after considering the matter.

"The next morning," Hoover wrote, "he told the one in charge, who happened to be myself, that he should not be called again during the night, except in case of 'life or death.' He explained that no one could pass intelligent judgment when awakened from a sound sleep and that he was not going to try."

Wilson's staff did not need to be reminded. Various high-ranking officials tried to have him roused in supposedly urgent situations, but not once during all of World War I did anyone dare to wake Wilson.

So what of all this nonsense about solving a crisis in the dead of night? As The Post reported this month, recent presidents have often been roused from sleep to be alerted to important developments, but rarely were they required to do much besides listen and hit the pillow again.

"In my experience," former secretary of state and national security adviser Henry Kissinger told The Post, "I cannot think, off the top of my head, of a snap decision that had to be made in the middle of the night." Indeed, Kissinger added, "I think that one should reduce the number of snap decisions to be made."

Sleep, to be sure, can be overdone. Calvin Coolidge never let the demands of his lackluster presidency interfere with his snoozes. He slept an average of 11 hours a day, going to bed at 10 p.m. and getting up between 7 and 9 a.m. In the afternoon, Ike Hoover recounted, "he would without fail take a nap, lasting from two to four hours." Hoover, who spent 42 years at the White House, said that no other president he served slept so much.

In contrast, both Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton liked to bounce ideas off their aides in the wee hours. But that's no guarantee of good governance. Warren Harding stayed up late, too, often until 1 or 2 a.m.

It's easy to imagine a situation requiring a clear-headed decision at a muddy hour. One nightmare scenario could involve a "dirty bomb." We have just 60 minutes, the president might be told, to blow up the bomb and the terrorists who plan to explode it. But, one hopes a president might wonder, how often has our intelligence been wrong? How many buildings and innocent people have been blown up by U.S. forces that didn't hit their targets? How many probing questions is a groggy president supposed to ask at 3 a.m.? How much confidence should he or she have in the answers?

Clinton's phone ad got more free publicity than its sponsors could have bought. Credulous as ever, the political media can be counted on to promote an attack without questioning its premises. The commercial deserves hall-of-shame ranking for its snide demagoguery: "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."

If our votes will decide who answers the 3 a.m. call, let's have a write-in vote for Ike Hoover, the long-serving White House usher. Hoover would tell the bureaucrat on the other end of the line, the one looking for brownie points by being the first to tell the president something that he or she will learn soon enough, to call back in the morning. After all, if it's the end of the world, there's nothing the president can do about it. If it isn't, it can almost always wait till breakfast. We got through World War I that way. And we won that one, didn't we?

The writer, a former reporter on The Post's national staff, is an associate at the Center for the Study of the Presidency.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company