What keeps you up at night? Office stress? That Instagram of your ex at a pool party with your former best friend? While they make your head spin, these issues are insignificant compared to, say, those concerning national security or the threat of nuclear annihilation. It’s no surprise then that going back to the earliest days of our nation, so many presidents have struggled with sleep issues. We combed through history to find the snorers, sleeping-pill poppers, power nappers and up-all-nighters that inhabited 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
There’s stress, and then there’s the threat of nuclear annihilation compounded by jet lag. No wonder some presidents turned to pills for some downtime. John F. Kennedy used two barbiturates, secobarbital and amobarbital, to help him sleep, a habit that may have been compounded by the fact that he suffered from severe back pain while in office. To a lesser degree was George H.W. Bush, who admitted to using the drug Halcion to get some shut-eye on long flights.
Perhaps no one was a more unapologetic presidential napper than Ronald Reagan. During his term in office, which he started at 70 years of age, Reagan regularly scheduled naps in the late afternoon, so he’d be fresh for formal dinners. Reagan famously quipped to the press, "No matter what time it is, wake me up, even if it's in the middle of a cabinet meeting."
Another well known napper, George W. Bush, admitted that even though he indulged in a mid-day siesta, he slept soundly at night.
Lyndon B. Johnson napped, but he more than made up for it by enforcing a “double shift” on himself and his staff. Rising at 6:30 or 7 a.m. he perused newspapers, then worked until 2 pm. The first shift complete, he took to the swimming pool or engaged in another form of exercise. He then changed into pajamas and settled in for a 30-minute nap. He awoke at 4, changed into clean clothes and began his “second shift” of the day, sometimes working until 1 or 2 in the morning.
JFK operated along a similar schedule. But he would eat lunch in bed, then take a nap, and afterwards soak in the tub. At 3:30 pm he went back to work until 7:30pm. With a fresh set of clothing for evening, he continued with any official duties.
Lots of presidents snored, including George Washington, John Adams, John Q. Adams and Martin Van Buren. But perhaps the king of the log-sawers was Theodore Roosevelt who was given his own floor during his stay at a Washington, DC hospital so as not to disturb the others with his struggling-engine of a snore.
The Big Boys
Two heavyweight presidents, William Howard Taft (350 pounds) and Grover Cleveland (a mere 260) both had apnea, a condition during which one suffers from pauses in breathing during sleep. Taft paid the price for his disruptive sleep — being tired during the day and nodding off during meetings and even at the golf course.
Up All Night
Bill Clinton managed to run the country on a nightly allotment of five or six hours. Slick Willy had a penchant for staying up until the wee hours and it was not uncommon for him to rouse a staffer with whom he could burn the midnight oil.
Unsurprisingly, another well-known insomniac, was Abraham Lincoln (the Civil War will do that). And President Obama counts himself among the night owls, relying on a 7a.m. wake up call to get his day started.
Politicians, in general, are often sacrificing sleep for the greater good. What’s the second most desirable thing besides votes that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton wants, according to Politico.com? Sleep. “Never get enough of it,” she said. “Always want more.”
Sweet dreams, Mrs. Clinton. And to the rest of the gang as well.