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Don't Worry, America: The 3 A.M. Phone Call Is a Myth
Exterior facade of White House at night. December, 1998 (Cynthia Johnson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

Don't Worry, America: The 3 A.M. Phone Call Is a Myth

Tevi Troy

Widespread concern over Donald Trump’s readiness to be president has revived memories of Hillary Clinton’s most lasting contribution to political advertising, her famous 2008 spot that depicted children sleeping soundly in their beds late at night with a voiceover saying that, at that moment, “something is happening in the world.” “Your vote will decide who answers that call,” the stentorian voice intones. Though Clinton lost that race, the meme lived on: Even a recent episode of the Simpsons did a hilarious bit on the ad, with the Trump character taking so long to primp himself for a national security meeting (including placing a little dog on his head for hair) after his 3 a.m. phone call that he misses the crisis.

Few ads have ever so successfully distilled the responsibilities of the president in a time of “clear and present danger.” Yet as a former White House aide and presidential historian, I have to say that it’s mostly myth to think that any president is ever asked to make such critical decisions in the middle of the night. First, even if there is a crisis, the wakeups are often unnecessary. A national security adviser may feel obligated to wake a president with bad or unexpected news, but there is usually little that can or must be done by the president that would warrant awakening the commander in chief.

Indeed, most of the awakenings these days are about political optics: Since an infamous incident in 1981, when Ronald Reagan’s staff caused consternation by choosing not to awaken the president after two U.S. F-14 Tomcat fighters shot down two Libyan MIGs, presidents and their staffs have erred on the side of rousting their bosses rather than letting them sleep.

As Henry Kissinger once put it after the Apollo 13 spacecraft crisis of 1970, when as national security advisor he recognized that there was literally nothing President Nixon could do about it but he woke him up anyway for PR reasons: “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.”

But actual necessity? Those incidents have been few and far between. Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski almost woke Carter in response to a reported Soviet missile strike, but hesitated just long enough to be notified that it was a false alarm. Even Kissinger, who had the opportunity to wake two different presidents, retained a healthy skepticism of what could be accomplished in the middle of the night. As he put it to a Washington Post reporter, “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.” This was not a bad thing, Kissinger noted, as he thought “that one should reduce the number of snap decisions to be made.”

Go back to the very beginning of the republic. The first president to be awakened due to his responsibilities was George Washington, and at the time he was not even president. At the Revolutionary War Battle of Monmouth, an aide approached to update Washington about the fight, but was hesitant because the prone general was wrapped in his cloak and appeared to be asleep. Washington, however, was ever vigilant and beckoned the aide to approach, saying “I laid here to think and not to sleep.” Years later, after Washington was no longer president, he awoke his wife Martha at 2 a.m. to notify her he was ill, but he would not allow her to call for help. He died at 10 the next night.

The first president to be awakened by an emergency while president may have been John Tyler, in 1841. Unfortunately for Tyler, the emergency was one of his own making. Tyler had vetoed a national bank bill passed by the congressional Whigs, the party that had nominated him as vice president to run with the recently deceased William Henry Harrison. Enraged by this apparent betrayal of someone they had put in the White House, an armed mob of angry Whigs marched on the White House. They not only awoke the president, but everyone else in the White House, writes Tyler biographer Robin Santos Doak. Tyler and his servants even armed themselves in case the drunken mob invaded the building itself. Eventually the mob dissipated, but not before burning an effigy of Tyler on the White House lawn.

Twenty years later, Abraham Lincoln was dealing with more than a mini-riot. In the midst of the Civil War, on one night alone, military secretary Col. Daniel Butterfield woke Lincoln up six times. It was July 12, 1861, during the Battle of Rich Mountain. On the sixth disturbance, Lincoln greeted Col. Butterfield with the words, “Colonel, do you ever sleep?” Butterfield’s response: “Mr. President, I was about to ask you the same question.” Lincoln then acknowledged that he had “not slept much since this civil war began,” but was pleased with Butterfield’s final interruption, informing the president of the Union’s first victory. So pleased, in fact, that he told Butterfield: “Colonel, if you will come to me every night with such telegrams as that, I will come out not only in my red shirt, but without any shirt at all. Tell General Scott so.”

The story is revealing for a number of reasons. First, as in the Washington story, it demonstrates that war, or in some cases military action, will be the most likely reason a President Hillary Clinton or a President Trump might be roused. Second, technology creates a dilemma for a president’s staff. The Lincoln story was only possible because of telegraph technology. Before that presidential sleep was relatively uninterrupted—unless there was a drunken mob at your front door. But, with the advent of the telegraph, national and later international news would make it to the president.

Presidents aren’t the only ones to be awakened. As history shows, vice presidential sleep can be disturbed as well, when the president goes onto that eternal slumber. In 1923, Vice President Calvin Coolidge was awakened to take the presidential oath of office after his predecessor President Warren G. Harding passed away. Coolidge was visiting his father’s Vermont rustic farm, a place lacking in modern amenities. Even though there was no phone on the premises, a telegram was hand-delivered to the farm and Coolidge’s father, a notary public, both woke his son and swore him in, in by lamplight at 2:47 AM. Silent Cal then went back to bed.

In 1948, Harry Truman was woken up not with the news that he was president, but that he would continue to be president. Beset by the expectations that he was likely to lose, Truman woke up twice on election night for election updates. After turning in at 9, Truman woke himself up at midnight to listen to the radio, hearing from announcer H.V. Kaltenborn that he had a 1.2 million vote lead over Republican Tom Dewey. Nevertheless, Truman wrote in his memoirs, “I was about 1,200,000 ahead on the count but, according to this broadcaster, still undoubtedly beaten.”

At 4 a.m., Secret Service agent Jim Rowley nudged his boss to get up turn on the radio one more time. This time Kaltenborn was reporting that Truman had a 2 million vote lead—close to his eventual victory margin. (Truman later noted that even then Kaltenborn still “couldn’t see how I could be elected.”) Truman then headed down to his Kansas City campaign headquarters, arriving around 6, and receiving a concession telegram at 10:30 am from a gracious Tom Dewey. Once again, technology had changed the parameters of a presidential wakeup. It was not just direct updates from subordinates that could get him out of bed, but now news broadcasts as well.

In the modern era, the question of awakening the president has the potential to be a political issue, as the 3 a.m. commercial suggested. During the 1981 Libya incident, Reagan was actually awake and in Los Angeles when the incident took place but was as yet unaware of the shootdown when he went to sleep. Presidential counselor Ed Meese called a 3 a.m. staff meeting among those in L.A. to discuss the situation, and Meese insisted on having all of the relevant details in hand before disturbing the president. According to Meese, by 4 a.m they had received a full picture, and they did wake up Reagan to give him a complete briefing. Thus the real controversy was over when, not whether, they woke him up.

But in later years, Meese was clearly bitter that the incident became a “story that administration critics have tried to use to the discredit of the President (and mine as well),” as he wrote. It also became part of Reagan lore, and even a theme throughout his presidency. Compounding matters, Reagan was widely mocked for falling asleep in some meetings, most famously a 1982 audience with the Pope. Furthermore, Johnny Carson made Reagan as sleeper theme into a recurrent punchline, telling jokes like “There are only two reasons you wake President Reagan: World War III and if Hellcats of the Navy is on the Late Show.”

The Reagan team was aware of and sensitive to the criticism, so much so that they allowed Reagan to be photographed in his pajamas, phone in hand, for the cover of the November 7, 1983 issue of US News & World Report. The picture was not just a prop: it reflected recent reality. On October 21, Reagan had flown to Augusta for a golf weekend. That first night, however, Reagan was awakened at 4 a.m. to address an urgent situation regarding a Marxist coup in Granada. When informed that U.S. troops could be ready to liberate the island nation in 48 hours, Reagan issued a curt yet commanding reply: “Do it.” He woke up an hour later to go ahead with his scheduled golf game. The next night, he was awakened at 2:30 a.m. by National Security Adviser Bud McFarlane with much worse news: Islamic terrorists had bombed the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, slaughtering 241 Americans. He immediately went into a four hour meeting with his top national security advisers. This time there would be no golf in the morning: Reagan headed right back to Washington to deal with the crisis.

Regardless of the 1983 wakeups, Reagan developed a reputation, fairly or not, as a “sleeping” president. At one point, union workers held a protest at 4 a.m. – shades of the anti-John Tyler Whigs – specifically to “wake up the president.” It was to no avail. Reagan slept through the protest. Reagan’s successor George H. W. Bush even implicitly acknowledged his predecessor’s reputation by saying that he’d be a “wake me, shake me president.” And he was. Bush’s staff awakened him to sign orders related to US response to Saddam Hussein’s 1991 invasion of Kuwait, and also when Saddam attacked Israel with SCUD missiles. Later that same year, Bush was also awakened by National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft with the news that Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev had resigned. When Bush noted that U.S. officials seemed to be taken by surprise by the news, Scowcroft retorted, “Yes, so was Gorbachev!”

Bill Clinton liked to stay up late, so he was more apt to wake up staff then to have them wake him. He was, however, awakened to make a phone call to finalize the Northern Ireland peace agreement in 1998. George W. Bush famously liked his sleep, lugging his own pillow with him on the campaign trail, and going to bed early and waking up early even while serving as president. Still, he did ask staff to awaken him when Americans were killed abroad, and he was also awakened in 2004 to be told that former president Reagan had died. As for our current president, he is a night owl, and likes to stay up late working and watching television. He was awakened by staff to learn that he has won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, which was probably as much of a surprise to him as it was to the rest of the world.

Given that we are in the midst of a new presidential election, what do we learn from all of these wakeups and also non-wakeups? First, there is usually little that can or must be done by the president that would warrant awakening the commander in chief, but since the Reagan Libya incident, presidents and their staffs have erred on the side of rousting their bosses to avoid the reputation of being an out-of-touch president.

Former New York Times columnist Les Gelb called this analysis “a one-way bet for staff,” citing an anonymous White House staffer who told him that “You can’t be fired for waking the president, you can only be fired for not waking him.”

Still, there should be some kind of generally observed rule about waking the president, and it should not be as broad as George W. Bush’s anytime-an-American-civilian-is-killed abroad standard. In most of these cases, there is nothing to be done immediately, and so no point in disturbing a sleepy president. Furthermore, the issue of an American being killed abroad implicitly raises the question of what about an American killed at home. Given that there are well over 10,000 murders in the U.S. annually, such an approach is not even remotely feasible, let alone wise.

Despite the current bias in favor of the wake up, it’s not at all clear it is the right move. The presidency is a grueling business, and well-rested presidents are liable to make better judgements. As presidential scholar Fred Greenstein has said, in most cases the better call might be “not waking people up.” But the durability of Hillary Clinton’s most notable contribution to presidential politics so far may have made that impossible.

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