As Bill Clinton reflected upon his presidency, he said that the biggest obstacle to making good policy decisions was operating with unceasing sleep deprivation. This is the same Bill Clinton who as a young man was remarkable at running on empty. His all-nighters at both Georgetown while an undergraduate and at Yale Law School were renowned. As a semester trudged on and many students were slaving away night after night, Clinton found a variety of ways to have a good time, ranging from thoughtful discussions with colleagues to serious partying. But if he had a paper due the next day or was scheduled to take a final exam, the night before he would create his own “hermitage” and often do a semester’s worth of work in one night. Fatigue was not a problem if he was taking a final the next day; his academic record shows consistently high grades.
Hundreds of Big Macs and who knows what else later when Clinton was president, he was under constant pressure. Much of this was self-imposed and extremely tiring, in contrast to his successor, George W. Bush, who seemed to glide through the presidency while maintaining an early-to-bed routine. But unlike Bush, Clinton had a voracious appetite for information. He wanted to go into meetings with the most knowledge of anyone in the room. He read reams of background information and took copious notes. His work time may have been expanded because he was one of the latest baby-boom adopters of the internet. His work habits meant that he was often working four or five hours after George Bush would have gone to sleep. Clinton was already high-strung and temperamental, but when sleep-deprived, he was particularly challenged in being a good listener and a collaborator. Following his presidency, he wishes that he could have made more time for sleep.
Barack Obama became a serious student in college, reading far more books than was ever assigned to him. He continued his scholarly ways, even while he was working long hours as a community organizer on Chicago’s south side. If he wasn’t sleep-deprived at that time, it certainly happened in his early 30s when he wrote “Dreams of My Father” on his off-hours as an Illinois state senator. He often did not go to bed until 2:00 AM or 3:00 AM. Since his wife, Michelle, was an early riser, especially after the children came along, she was none too pleased with her husband’s nocturnal work habits. He always apologized and then continued working.
Biographer David Mendell essentially shadowed Barack Obama when he was running for the U.S. Senate in Illinois from 2002- 2004. Obama had a day-job as a state senator, working in Springfield, IL, nearly 200 miles from home. He was also campaigning in every corner of Illinois to prove that he was a viable candidate to citizens from all backgrounds and of all political persuasions. In one eleven day period, he was in Boston for four days highlighted by his keynote speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention followed by a seven day bus tour zigzagging across and up and down Illinois. He returned to Chicago as a grumpy, irritable, and exhausted famous man. He was able to catch a little sleep and time with his family.
Texas Governor Rick Perry has said that his lukewarm performances in the early debates that he entered were due in large part to fatigue. His handlers were able to provide him with more rest time prior to the Oct. 11 debate at Dartmouth College, although some observers felt that he slept through the debate. In any event, running on or near empty is not good for one’s health or performance. We as the American people are often enablers to politicians and office-holders by expecting them to be all things to all people at all times.
In the spring of 2008 when Barack Obama was fiercely campaigning against Hillary Clinton in the Indiana primary, he made appearances in dozens of cities and towns. A reporter asked a citizen of Kokomo (population 45,000) for whom he would vote in the primary. The man said that he didn’t know how much Obama cared about Kokomo because he had not visited the “city.” Once this was widely publicized, Obama sacrificed several hours of his precious and minimal “down time” to visit Kokomo. It is reported that he then received the man’s vote.
During the first century of the United States, presidential candidate rarely traveled to make appearances. As recently as 1896, Republican William McKinley campaigned from his front porch. Even though this was pre-radio, pre-television, and pre-internet, he felt confident that the newspapers would cover his speeches and spread the word. He was right and he won.
We are a nation of fatigued people. In 2001, the median amount of sleep was seven hours per night, a full hour less than in 1942. We tend to be demanding, of both ourselves and others, to fit in as much work or leisure time as we can. Many Americans believe the adage that ninety percent of life is showing up.
President Obama is admittedly sleep-deprived. He has been so fatigued that once in his 2004 Senate race that according to Mendell, he nodded off (and quickly recovered) in his own speech. All citizens deserve the best possible performance of their leaders. All leaders deserve simple courtesy from the citizens they help govern.
The structure of our political process has made healthy sleep nearly impossible. Candidates need to visit each state at least once for its caucus or primary. Appearances in all forty-eight contiguous states need to occur in general elections. Fund-raisers require candidates to constantly follow Jerry Maguire’s mantra, “Follow the Money.”
Here’s a proposed solution to the problem. Each of us as citizens can act in a passive-aggressive manner towards candidates. If a candidate is coming to town, don’t go to hear or see him or her. If a candidate wants you to attend a fund-raising event, tell him or her that you’re busy alphabetizing your socks.
We need to remove the demands that make candidates feel that they have to be anywhere and everywhere. We need to encourage politicians to first and foremost do their day jobs. These jobs are exhausting enough. If we want better leadership, we need individuals in positions of responsibility who are alert and energized. As odd as it seems, maybe William McKinley and his predecessors had it right. Campaign from home and get a good night’s sleep.
Since 1969, Arthur Lieber has been teaching and working in non-profit educational organizations. His focus has been on promoting critical, creative, and enjoyable learning for students in informal settings. In the 2010 mid-term elections, he was the Democratic nominee for US Congress from Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District.