A Modest Proposal: Mr. President, Get Some Sleep
Donald Trump’s first week as President of the United States is in the bag, and what a week it’s been. He came in promising to be an unconventional president, and on that score he’s delivered. But in another sense, he’s off to an all too conventional start. Whether he recreates America’s greatness remains to be seen, but in the meantime, what he seems to be recreating the chaotic Bill Clinton White House. Of course they’re miles apart politically. But what Trump is recreating is the Clinton working process — complete with all of its feverish, frantic, late-night, sleep-deprived chaos.
Let’s go back and look at the Clinton White House. Clinton came in bragging about his style of burning the candle at both ends and that’s exactly the M.O. he imported into the White House with—as we know—disastrous impulse control and decision-making consequences. “Perhaps because his father died before he was born, President Clinton was keenly aware of the fleeting nature of his time in office,” Paul Begala, one of Clinton’s advisors, said. “He seemed to believe that sleep was overrated.”
Whatever the origins, right from the beginning Clinton seemed to treat sleep as a political opponent to be resisted and defeated. In his book Eyewitness to Power, David Gergen, long-time advisor to several presidents, including Clinton, described those early days. “Clinton was still celebrating the victory and loved staying up half the night to laugh and talk with old friends,” Gergen wrote. “The next morning, he would be up at the crack of dawn to hit the beach for an early run or perhaps a game of touch football.”
This style of working was not without consequences. “He seemed worn out, puffy, and hyper,” Gergen wrote. “His attention span was so brief that it was difficult to have a serious conversation of more than a few minutes.” At one point, Gergen tried to give the President some gentle advice — which was, after all, what he was hired to do. “In a short encounter with Clinton, I tried to say gently that the presidency is a marathon, not a hundred-yard dash, and I hoped he would have a chance for some downtime in the three weeks still remaining,” Gergen wrote. “I don’t think I registered. . . . Those who saw him in his first weeks at the White House often found him out of sorts, easily distracted, and impatient.” Sound eerily recently familiar?
Of course it went way beyond the first few weeks. And it also had a spillover effect, because when the president doesn’t sleep, neither does anybody else around the president. “My wife and I, we had the official phone right next to our bed,” Bill Richardson, Clinton’s energy secretary and former governor of New Mexico, said. “And whenever it was after 1 a.m., it was President Clinton. And he did it quite frequently.” Not surprisingly, it even became an issue with Richardson’s wife. “I remember some of those late phone calls my wife would turn over in bed and say ‘Oh my God,’” said Richardson. “We put the phone in another room and I’d lock the door so she wouldn’t hear.”
And despite its considerable downsides, this way of working never really changed. As Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala said, by the end of the eight years, with the soon-to-depart President Clinton frantically eager to address overlooked policy proposals, she began sleeping with her massive briefing books right next to her bed, ready for the inevitable late night calls. “I was numb the last two weeks,” Shalala said.
How big of an effect did this have on Clinton’s presidency? His first week was dominated by his clumsy handling of the gays-in-the-military issue, which earned him criticism from those on both sides of the aisle. And according to Gergen, this way of working “planted seeds that almost destroyed Clinton’s presidency.” Bill Clinton himself later acknowledged “every important mistake I’ve made in my life, I’ve made because I was too tired.”
And Hillary Clinton might make the same admission one day, given that it was on the same night that she refused to rest after having been diagnosed with walking pneumonia that she made one of her worst mistakes of the campaign — calling Trump supporters a “basket of deplorables.”
And now let’s look at Trump’s first week. Here’s a handy summary of it — in a series of nine tweets — by The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman:
And perhaps the reason the aides “tend to adopt his mindset” is because they’re also forced to adopt his sleeping habits.
And now we’ve learned that on his first morning as President of the United States, Trump personally called acting National Park Service director Michael T. Reynolds and ordered him to come up with photos of the inauguration crowd that would counter the media’s reporting that the size of the crowd had been smaller than that of President Obama’s. Asked about the call, deputy White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said it is just the result of President Trump’s style of being “so accessible, and constantly in touch.”
In fact, the decision to make that call, and bizarrely keep the issue going for the entire first week of his presidency, seems to be more the result of President Trump being almost constantly awake with his executive functioning impaired. (Highly recommended that the White House staff, if not the president himself, read the McKinsey study on the impact of sleep deprivation, excerpted in the Harvard Business Review).
It’s not much of a surprise, given that Trump has long regarded sleep as just another adversary to be dominated into submission. “You know, I’m not a big sleeper,” he said during a campaign rally in Illinois. “I like three hours, four hours. I toss, I turn, I beep-de-beep, I want to find out what’s going on.”
And many of his campaign’s most divisive moments came in the middle of the night or early morning. The attack on Megyn Kelly? 3:53 a.m.
The attack on Alicia Machado? 5:30 a.m.
So in effect he told us he wasn’t going to be sleeping much, and he’s keeping that promise. But this is one of the many promises he should consider breaking. The science and data on sleep are as clear as the photos of inaugural crowds. And ignoring the former might account for his irrational beliefs about the latter. There are, of course, thousands of studies on this, but to cite just one, here are the results from a study on the effects of sleep deprivation from the Walter Reed hospital:
Relative to baseline, sleep deprivation was associated with lower scores on Total EQ (decreased global emotional intelligence), Intrapersonal functioning (reduced self-regard, assertiveness, sense of independence, and self-actualization), Interpersonal functioning (reduced empathy toward others and quality of interpersonal relationships), Stress Management skills (reduced impulse control and difficulty with delay of gratification), and Behavioral Coping (reduced positive thinking and action orientation). Esoteric Thinking (greater reliance on formal superstitions and magical thinking processes) was increased.
It’s like a summary of President Trump’s first week. Just look at what happened on day three. According to The New York Times, Trump opened his meeting with House and Senate leaders on Monday by restating his claim that 3 to 5 million “illegals” had voted in the election, denying him his rightful victory in the popular vote. He backed this up with a strange tale about former professional golfer Bernhard Langer. In Trump’s telling, Langer, a German native living in Florida, was denied the right to vote at his polling place, even though others in line, who looked to be from Latin America, were allowed to cast provisional ballots. But according to Langer’s daughter, her father couldn’t have voted anyway. “He is a citizen of Germany,” she said. “He is not a friend of President Trump’s, and I don’t know why he would talk about him.”
And now the President says he’ll soon sign an order for a full-fledged investigation of these supposed 3 to 5 million votes.
Esoteric thinking, formal superstitions, magical thinking — not exactly traits you want in a president. And whether you voted for him or not, it’s now in everybody’s interest — it’s in our national security’s interest — that he begins to charge his phone in another room and gets a good night’s sleep. We of course have no control over the president’s sleeping habits, but we do have control over our own. And as we’re headed into a very bumpy week two and beyond, we need all the calm, clear-headedness, and resilience we can muster.