Presidential Candidates and the Sleep Deficit

Earlier this year, in an article titled “Fatigue Factor Gives Equal Time to Candidates,” The New York Times reported that almost all of America’s major presidential candidates are suffering from sleep deprivation, the “gaffe-inducing monster that looms over every campaign in its final hours.”

As an example, the Times mentioned Barack Obama, who “blamed fatigue for his drastically overstating the death toll from tornadoes in Kansas in May.” (Obama claimed that 10,000 people died. The actual figure was 12). It also quoted a gaffe by a sleep-deprived Mitt Romney, who said in Altoona: “I won’t remember Iowans.” (He meant that he would “never forget” Iowans.)

With the 2008 election season in full swing and America preoccupied with the pressing issues of our day—the economy, illegal immigration, Iraq, terrorism, etc.—it seems almost frivolous to talk about how much sleep our presidential candidates are getting. At first glance, one might ask: “Given that America faces so many pressing political and economic problems, why should anyone care how many hours Hilary Clinton or Barack Obama gets to sleep?”

The answer: Sleep deprivation affects U.S. politics negatively—carrying hidden but significant costs in terms of poor political judgments and inferior decision-making. To paraphrase Al Gore on global warming, sleep isn’t a partisan issue; its negative effects carry a cost for all Americans, Republican or Democrat. As former president Bill Clinton said on The Daily Show in September 2007, “I do believe sleep deprivation has a lot to do with some of the edginess of Washington today.” He added: “You have no idea how many Republican and Democratic members of the House and Senate are chronically sleep deprived.”

Given that sleep is a relatively uncontroversial, non-partisan issue, addressing it can only influence our nation for the better. If it is important for the pilot of a 300-passenger aircraft to be well-rested and fully alert at all times, should not America’s future presidents—who has the power to mold the destinies of 300 million people—be in good physical shape to deal with pressing problems like the subprime meltdown, the Iraq war, terrorism, and illegal immigration? Is it prudent to allow a nation with 10,000 nuclear weapons to be controlled by a commander-in-chief who sleeps only four hours a day?

To consider the importance of sleep, one need look no further than Stanford University’s sleep expert, Dr William C. Dement, who teaches a “Sleep and Dreams” course that is centered on two fundamental principles of sleep science:

Principle 1: “All lost sleep accumulates as sleep debt.”

Principle 2: “Sleep debt can only be reduced by obtaining extra sleep.”

Dr Dement’s principles are backed up by decades of scientific research. Sleep requirements differ among people, but according to a 2003 medical study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania, the average person requires at least 8 hours of sleep to remain fully alert during the day. Sleeping any less than one’s daily sleep requirement leads to the accumulation of a sleep debt. Moreover, just as a credit card debt must be repaid down to the last cent, a sleep debt must also eventually be repaid down to the last hour.

Moreover, sleep is important not just because it occupies a third of our lives, but also because how we spend this one-third directly affects our ability to function in the other two-thirds. According to the aforementioned University of Pennsylvania study, the greater one’s accumulated sleep debt, the more lethargic one feels during the day. Therefore, the real cost of sleep deprivation is not just the sleep debt that must be repaid, but also the increased tiredness and diminished performance during one’s waking hours—i.e. the interest on the debt.

But if all sleep debts must be repaid, this leads to an interesting question: After a candidate wins the presidential election, how does he repay his sleep debt?

Some presidents simply don’t repay their sleep debts. For example, The New York Times reports that President Clinton was “famous for requiring just two or three hours of sleep a night.” In addition, speaking at UC Berkeley in 2002, Clinton told his audience that he has been “really tired a long time […] I spent 30 years sleep-deprived and I got used to it.”

In contrast to Clinton, some other presidents have healthier attitudes toward sleep. It is worth noting that after winning the 2000 presidential elections, President Bush was quoted by ABC News: “I’m trying to set the record as the president who got to bed earliest on Inauguration Day.”

Since then, President Bush has reportedly continued to adhere to responsible sleep patterns. According to former presidential aide Blake Gottesman, President Bush is a “self-described early-to-bed and early-to-rise kind of guy.” Subsequently, Dr R. Murali Krishna, a leading national health expert, has also praised President Bush for setting “a positive example for the nation by attempting to get the right amount of sleep, even in the midst of a War on Terror.”

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