Calling the President at 3 A.M.

Who wakes up the chief executive in the middle of the night?

Clinton campaign ad
Hillary Clinton’s “Children” campaign ad

A recent campaign ad for Hillary Clinton poses the following question: “It’s 3 a.m., and your children are safe and asleep. But there’s a phone in the White House, and it’s ringing. Something’s happening in the world. Your vote will decide who answers that call.” (John Dickerson deconstructs the controversial spot here.) In a 2005 “Explainer,” Daniel Engber looked into who rouses the commander in chief and which circumstances might warrant a pre-dawn awakening.

News of the death of Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd reached the White House at 2:30 Monday morning. According to spokesman Scott McClellan, the president wasn’t informed until he showed up for work at 7 a.m. When something happens in the middle of the night, who decides whether the president should get out of bed?

It varies from president to president, but the task usually falls to the national security adviser or the chief of staff. In the White House, a small team of “watch officers”—drawn from the CIA, the military, and the State Department—keeps an eye on incoming news and intelligence reports 24 hours a day. If something important comes up during the graveyard shift, the watch officer in charge gets in contact with the national security adviser or chief of staff, either via their deputies or a with a direct phone call. The watch officers typically have standing instructions on what sort of news merits a wake-up; President Bush’s chief of staff, Andrew Card, for example, has said he wants to be awakened for any overseas incident in which Americans are killed.

This procedure has been in place only since 1961, when John F. Kennedy ordered the construction of a permanent monitoring station on the site of what was once the West Wing bowling alley. (Before 1961, 24-hour war rooms were constructed and dismantled as needed.) The new facility became known as the “situation room.”

It’s not that unusual for a president to be awakened with news from the situation room. President Bush was alerted when a U.S. spy plane made an emergency landing in China in 2001 and for a deadly suicide bombing in Jerusalem in 2002, among many similar events.

But history remembers a snoozing president more than an alert one. When Henry Kissinger learned of a menacing letter from the Soviet premier in 1973, the White House chief of staff advised him not to wake up the president. (Former aides have said that Nixon, who was distraught over his domestic scandals, had drunk himself into a stupor by 10 the night before.)

Ronald Reagan, who famously slept during Cabinet meetings, also snoozed through two overseas military encounters. In 1981, his counselor Edwin Meese called a 3 a.m. staff meeting after learning that U.S. fighter jets had shot down a pair of Libyan planes earlier that night. They decided against calling Reagan in his Los Angeles hotel room. And in 1985, Reagan’s National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane chose not to wake him when an American soldier was shot and killed in East Germany. (Reagan’s reputation for snoozing even invited a protest: In 1983, steel and auto workers marched on the White House at 4 a.m. to “wake up the president” to the effects of his economic policy. Reagan said he slept through that, too.)

When George H. W. Bush took office, he announced that he’d be a “wake me, shake me” president, ready to spring into action in the middle of the night. His bedtime during the first Gulf War was 10:30, but National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft would rouse him with important news.

Bill Clinton received wake-up calls from Deputy National Security Adviser James Steinberg when necessary, but he slept through the racket when a gunman fired half a dozen shots at the White House one night in December of 1994. He also slumbered through congratulatory phone calls from foreign leaders after he won the election in 1992.

Explainer thanks Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution.