Bush, Clinton, and the politics of sleep deprivation
Falling asleep involves a very real return to nature, a surrender of conscious control to the innate needs of the biological organism that is our body. Sleeping is a time when our animal heritage is most apparent, when the basic instincts of self-maintenance and preservation take over. A good night’s sleep helps replenish our physical, emotional, and intellectual energies in preparation for the challenges of each coming day.
My research suggests that conservatives tend to sleep better than liberals. More evidence is needed to substantiate this idea, but I think it makes good sense. Conservatives are more likely to value the qualities of control, personal power, and safety from outside forces. A sound, steady, restful sleep is consistent with that kind of outlook on life. Liberals, on the other hand, are more oriented towards openness and empathy for others, and as a result they’re more vulnerable to external disruptions and loss of personal control. Those ideals appear to be correlated with the variable quality of their sleep.
Our last two Presidents play out this pattern in almost comic-book form. Throughout his two terms in office, Bill Clinton was well-known for his restless intelligence, late-night conversational manias, and blatant disregard for other people’s normal patterns of waking and sleeping. He was, by his own admission, a functional insomniac. George W. Bush, meanwhile, has always let it be known that he’s an early-to-bed kind of guy. Right after his 2000 election he said this would be his first historical goal: “I’m trying to set the record as the President who got to bed earliest on Inauguration Day.” In a 2006 interview with People magazine he said that despite the stressful responsibilities of his job, he actually sleeps quite soundly: “I must tell you, I’m sleeping much better than people would assume.” He let on that he occasionally takes sleep aids when traveling and drinks a couple of cups of coffee each morning, but other than that he’s a clean living person in both waking and sleeping: “I don’t drink alcohol. I can remember when I used to drink, I had trouble sleeping at night.”[i]
Pundits on both sides of the ideological divide have interpreted these sleep differences as meaningful signs of each President’s deeper nature. Many liberals were excited by Clinton’s boundless energy, and they’re horrified by the oblivious tranquility of Bush’s sleep (fumed one internet commentator: “So he has no trouble sleeping, huh? Well, that’s just freaking wonderful. Because of him, nearly 3000 American service members are sleeping soundly, too. But they won’t get to wake up the next day.”[ii]). In contrast, conservatives regarded the nocturnal hyperactivity of Clinton as a symptom of his broader lack of personal discipline, and they praise Bush for his healthy-minded good sense (Steve Chapman wrote in the National Review, “conservatives can take his devotion to sleep as a good omen. Respecting his body’s own basic requirements suggests an appreciation of human limits that is the beginning of wisdom about governance.”[iii]). Both interpretations are correct in identifying the connection between sleep patterns and political sensibilities. Where they differ is in the valuation of a sound sleep. Liberals see Bush’s excessive fondness for sleep as a sign of being morally obtuse, and conservatives regard Clinton’s erratic sleep as indicating an unstable character.
Actually, Clinton himself has admitted to the governmental problems caused by poor sleep habits. In a remarkable aside during a question-and-answer session that followed a 2002 speech at the University of California, Berkeley, the former President said the following:
“But one of the reasons Washington is so…you’re going to all laugh when I say this, and you’re going to think, ‘He’s like everybody else. You know, when they get out of office they get a little dotty and a little crazy.’ But I’m telling you, one of the reasons that there is often such an acrimonious atmosphere in Washington, is that too many members of the Congress in both parties are sleep deprived. And you just think about it…. I’m telling you that the main reason you ought to be for some kind of meaningful campaign reform is that half the people in Congress are physically exhausted all the time from trying to make their votes, learn about the issues, come home on the weekend, and spend all their time raising money. And it clouds your judgment, and it undermines your ability to be relaxed and respectful in dealing with your adversaries. Now, every one of you, if you’ve ever been really tired a long time—you know, I spent 30 years sleep-deprived and I got used to it—but I’m serious, you have no idea how much more physically difficult it is to be a member of Congress now than it was before you had to raise this kind of money. And you ought to take a burden off their back and keep working until we get real campaign finance reform, so you can have people who are thinking, who have time to think about these issues and study them, and who believe they will have the opportunity to argue their position to their constituents, so they don’t have to take the most extreme possible position because that’s what it takes to get the money, and they’re not so exhausted from chasing around after the money, that they never get a decent night’s sleep. Now, you can laugh about that, but I’m telling you, if you had all the members of Congress here and they were being honest with you, they’d tell you that I just told you one of the most important reasons that you could ever be for this.”[iv]
Whatever you think of his pitch for campaign finance reform, Clinton is offering an intriguing signal of liberal willingness to value sleep as a necessity for healthy political functioning. He speaks of sleep deprivation as an open secret in Washington life, a problem that everyone recognizes and suffers yet feels helpless to change. Why shouldn’t conservatives agree with him? After all, their hero Ronald Reagan was famously (though perhaps not accurately; link to conversation with Martin Anderson) insistent on having the opportunity to enjoy an afternoon nap each day.
Looking beyond Washington to the nation as a whole, much more attention should be paid to the fact that millions of Americans suffer problems with the length and quality of their sleep. In terms of the basic requirements for human health, this is equivalent to saying that millions of Americans don’t have adequate food, water, or air. Sleep is just as essential to our survival, yet it’s rarely recognized as such. If we take seriously the strong scientific evidence that sleep is crucial to our mental and physical well-being, then we have to ask some difficult questions. What is the collective damage caused by the sleep-depriving pressures of contemporary American life? How many accidents, injuries, fights, mistakes, misunderstandings, and screw-ups are caused by people who are stumbling through the day in an exhausted, semi-conscious fog? Of all our basic physical needs, why is sleep the one we seem most willing to sacrifice, the one we regularly disrupt and deny in favor of other interests? Do we really want a future where we’ll have to take a pill to stay awake and another one to go to sleep? We’re in danger of becoming a society of sleep anorexics, fooling ourselves into thinking it’s perfectly normal to starve our body of what it needs, pretending that no one else notices the harmful, emaciating effects.
I see no reason why conservatives and liberals shouldn’t agree that improving sleep hygiene should be a public health priority. Any number of easy, low-cost measures (e.g., early education about sleep and health, more flexible employment and school schedules, stronger noise ordinances, work-place nap rooms, etc.) could produce rapid and tangible benefits in people’s well-being. The problems caused by sleeplessness involve more than just higher frequencies of accidents, injuries, and illnesses. I’d go further and say that inadequate sleep represents a subtle but genuine threat to our psychological ability to function as responsible citizens in a democracy. Our form of government depends on—was created in the name of—free-thinking individuals capable of making their own decisions about their lives. A political system like ours presupposes a high degree of maturity, self-awareness, and wisdom on the part of the citizens, and we risk weakening those vital qualities when we deny our biological need for long, steady, restful sleep.