George W. Bush made plenty of bad decisions during his presidency, but he began it with a very good one: He left the inaugural ball an hour ahead of schedule to get to bed. This was in keeping with his practice of getting plenty of sleep – often nine hours a night.
His regular schedule fed the accusation that he was lazy. But given his record, it’s hard to conclude that he would have been a better president had he been sleep-deprived.
The Democratic presidential candidates are busy staking out positions, preparing policy statements and trying to outdo each other in wonkiness. Elizabeth Warren’s unlikely rallying cry is: “I have a plan for that.” I will get around to digging through the details, but in the meantime I have a simpler and far more important basis on which to judge the contenders.
Recently, The New York Times asked them: “How many hours of sleep do you get a night?” This allows me to winnow out Eric Swalwell (“probably around four”), Seth Moulton (usually five or six) and Julian Castro (rarely more than five). It counts against Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke, who all gave the same alarming answer: “Not enough.”
I am not impressed with Pete Buttigieg (“It depends on the night”) or Cory Booker (“It wildly varies”); neither answer indicates a firm dedication to adequate rest. Jay Inslee and Marianne Williamson were annoyingly vague. Tulsi Gabbard, Bill de Blasio and Amy Klobuchar did not inspire confidence, at six hours a night. “Sleepy Joe” Biden was not included.
Tim Ryan and John Hickenlooper rose on my list, with both claiming a minimum of seven hours on the mattress. But they were beat out by Warren, who replied, “Sometimes as much as eight.” The slumber champ? Kirsten Gillibrand, who said with a blithe smile, “Eight or nine.”
It’s no secret that inadequate sleep has bad effects on mood, physical fitness and cognitive function, which are kind of a big deal for someone with all the power and responsibility that go with the presidency. I would not want someone to make a decision on whether to tell off Kim Jong Un, sign a huge tax bill or send in the 101st Airborne while bleary-eyed.
Donald Trump says he gets only four or five hours per night, which leaves him a lot of time to compose tweets betraying the sort of irritability that comes from chronic insomnia. Even Republicans would much prefer him to be snoring peacefully at 5 am than unleashing an all-caps blast on his smartphone.
The dangers of sleep deprivation are bipartisan. Bill Clinton was famous for staying up late and expecting others to be available. His energy secretary Bill Richardson said that whenever his home phone rang at 1 am, it was the president. Clinton admitted his folly: “In my long political career, most of the mistakes I made, I made when I was too tired.”
Barack Obama, who had more regular habits, still got only five to seven hours per night. Aides often got emails after midnight. It may have eventually dawned on him that this was not sensible. Late in his second term, he revealed his post-White House plan: “I am going to take three, four months where I just sleep.”
Maybe Obama would have avoided some pitfalls if he hadn’t been operating on an accumulated sleep deficit. I’ve never heard of anyone attributing a mistake to being too well-rested.
Ronald Reagan, who was among our more successful recent presidents, was famous for getting plenty of Z’s. Before taking office, when informed that his White House national security adviser would arrive to brief him at 7:30 each morning, Reagan chortled, “Well, he’s going to have a hell of a long wait.”
Candidates who make a habit of getting enough rest exhibit discipline and prudence that is especially crucial in the crucible of the White House. A president who fails to account for the importance of sleep is likely to be chronically overwhelmed and distracted.
Warren and Gillibrand know that going to bed late and getting up early are taken as markers of toughness and dedication, and they don’t care. They know what they need to perform, and they make a point of getting it. Their indifference to being accused of sloth indicates a secure sense of self-esteem, which is a valuable trait.
I for one will never complain about a politician who puts in long hours under the sheets. Presidents are like young children. They’re all angels when they’re sleeping.