Clinton thrives on his role as napper in chief

April 09, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- Bill Clinton's high-speed presidency -- running, meeting, thinking, talking, traveling, plotting, planning -- has stirred a steady stream of speculation about whether this big, bulky, slow-talking, baggy-eyed guy is wearing himself out.

Even baseball sportscasters were asking him about it this week after he flew home in the wee hours from his summit meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia, on the west coast of Canada, so he could catch a train to Baltimore and throw out the Orioles' first ball.

After all, people who press too hard and sleep too little aren't always in the best shape to decide things like the course of the country.

But in those terms, at least, the Republic seems safe, because the new president has a little-known skill: He takes a great nap.

Some people are worse off after a nap than before. Some people don't have the time or place to curl up. Some people think napping is weak and cowardly. But Mr. Clinton is a man of supreme, unembarrassed self-confidence, an executive lucky enough to work at home, and a physical specimen blessed with the ability to recover from a nap without staggering, snarling or getting lost on the way to the shower.

He sleeps in cars, on buses, in trains, in planes. During the day he steals naps upstairs in the White House family residence. He says he can sleep leaning against a wall. He sleeps for 10, 20, 30 minutes and bounces up again, clear of eye and mind.

Mr. Clinton joked to one of the broadcasters this week that Arkansans might come naturally to sleeping anywhere because "most of us don't have to go very far back to find a family without a bed."

Energy Department spokesman Michael Gauldin, a former Clinton staffer who traveled with him for years when he was governor of Arkansas, saw Mr. Clinton drift off and then spring back again and again:

"He'd take a 5-minute nap in the car on the way to an event and wake up like he'd had a night's sleep. . . . He can work until 2 in the morning, catch four hours' sleep, then get up at 6 and go

running. . . . He doesn't need as much sleep as other people, it seems to me. It takes two or three shifts of staff people to keep up with him."

During the presidential campaign, some of them had to stay up with him deep into the night, talking, listening and playing cards. A Clinton aide said the smartest thing he did was refuse to learn to play hearts, the president's favorite late-night game.

In the smallest hours of the morning, Mr. Clinton seemed to reach the top of his campaign game, as well, charming late-night crowds with rousing campaign speeches, while running mate Al Gore, clearly not a night owl, struggled to put two coherent sentences together.

Even such seasoned sleep researchers as Dr. Mary Caskardon of Brown University in Providence, R.I., are impressed with Mr. Clinton's energy-to-rest ratio.

"He's worn me down," she says. "Election night, waiting on the East Coast for him to speak [he did finally, at 12:20 a.m.] was a little tough."

Dr. Caskardon was a member of a national commission formed by Congress to look into this somewhat elusive issue of sleep, and a year before Mr. Clinton was elected, it concluded that the whole country was suffering from "a sleep deficit," a chronic, national lack of adequate rest.

Since becoming president, Mr. Clinton hasn't reduced that particular deficit one wink.

He is generally up and running, literally, by 7 or so, and he really hits his stride, figuratively, in the evening hours. He often works himself and others, in person and by phone, well past midnight.

Despite all that, Dr. William Dement, who runs Stanford University's sleep research center, says, "I'm very impressed with Clinton's performance."

Dr. Dement says he sees a lot of Mr. Clinton because of a habit that somehow seems fitting for a sleep researcher -- keeping his office TV tuned to C-SPAN, the government-affairs cable TV network, all day long. Based on that constant exposure, Dr. Dement says, "I've never seen him looking tired or in danger of getting in trouble" for lack of rest.

That's quite unlike some previous occupants of the White House. particularly the frailer presidents spent a lot of their time in office sleeping. John Quincy Adams and James K. Polk tired easily and rested a lot. John F. Kennedy took recuperative naps. And Calvin Coolidge, most notorious of them all, not only slept nine hours a night but also two more hours every afternoon.

"The need for sleep is something that's highly idiosyncratic," says Dr. Jamie White of Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York. While most of the world trudges along on seven or eight hours' sleep, Dr. White says. "There are people who can get by on five hours, even four on rare occasion."

Mr. Clinton seems to operate many nights in the six-hour range, supplemented, of course, by those naps.

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