Clinton Ad Distorts Reality

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Mr. Creswell is in associate professor of history at Florida State University and the author of A Question of Balance: How France and the United States Created Cold War Europe (2006).

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton’s recent attack ad has struck a chord. The ad depicts a 3 am phone call to the White House, presumably informing the president of a crisis. An announcer intones with great solemnity, “Something is happening in the world.” We next see refreshed Clinton wearing a brown pants suit and talking calmly on the phone.

Super Tuesday exit polling showed that voters who made up their mind in the last two days before the election voted largely in favor of Clinton. This result indicates that the 3:00 a.m. phone call ad had worked its fearful magic. It sowed serious doubts about Barack Obama’s fitness to manage a crisis. It is highly possible that the election will turn on this very issue.

But how likely is such a scenario? Will the White House phone suddenly ring in the wee hours and awaken the next president to a crisis that requires an immediate decision? Such calls do occur, but not in the way that Clinton misleadingly portrays them.

Most likely, the call would come from the secretary of state or the national security adviser, who counsels the president on security matters. Normally, one of these two individuals decides whether to wake the president. If Senator Clinton is truly serious about establishing her national security credentials, she ought to focus on who she would choose for these key positions. So far, she has been silent on the subject.

Clinton’s foreign-policy advisers include Madeline Albright, Sandy Berger, and Martin Indyk. This suggests a reliance on much of the same team that served her husband. Ironically, they seemed to experience difficulty reaching a decision quickly, if the conflicts in Rwanda and Yugoslavia are any guide. Conversely, Obama has enlisted the support of Clinton Middle East specialists who were the strongest supporters of the peace process. Senator Clinton should explain why she accepts advice from individuals who waffled in time of crisis.

In October 1973 there was a real crisis: Egypt and Syria attacked Israel, which began the Yom Kippur War. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger chose instead to let President Richard Nixon sleep to prevent him from interfering. During the height of the crisis, Britain’s Prime Minister called the White House. But Kissinger refused to put Nixon on the line because he was drunk (as was often the case). It was 8:30 pm. Despite the current mud slinging, no one suggests that any of the major candidates suffers from a drinking problem.

In August 1981, US F-14s shot down two Libyan jets over the Mediterranean. Presidential counselor Ed Meese learned of the incident at 11:03 pm. But Meese delayed until 4:23 am to inform Ronald Reagan. The President said “good job” then went back to sleep. What does Clinton suggest he should have done differently?

On October 22, 1983, National Security Advisor Robert “Bud” McFarlane awoke Reagan at 2 am to notify him that a Marxist group had engineered a coup d’état on the Caribbean island of Grenada. However, members of Reagan’s staff had already met to devise strategy. Reagan responded by authorizing a US invasion that began two days later.

The next night, October 23, McFarlane awoke the president about 2:30 am. He told him that terrorists had destroyed a US Marine barracks in Lebanon, killing 241 American servicemen—the deadliest attack on US service men overseas since WWII. Reagan authorized a few shellings, but that was the extent of US retaliation. He waited over three months before ordering a withdrawal of US forces. Senator Clinton should note that Reagan took quick action on the easy one—invading a small island—and took months to act on the true crisis.

Today, as US soldiers are killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, what would happen if US soldiers were killed in a massive attack? Would President Hillary Clinton authorize a ground attack in response? That move would require many more US troops, a policy similar to the so-called “surge,” which she has rejected out of hand. Calling for a stepped up withdrawal of US forces from Iraq is in fact more dovish than what a President Obama would do. He has promised to use military force to protect US troops in Iraq, a point that Clinton has criticized.

It is unlikely that a crisis might occur today that would require to a president to make a snap decision while most of the country sleeps. Perhaps a terrorist attack on US soil, but much time would pass before the president knew who did it. And if Al-Qaeda staged a follow up to September 11, where would the US strike and when? American forces are already stretched thin and are close to breaking.

The fundamental question is not what the president will or will not say at 3 am. The real question is: will the next president craft a national security policy that makes it less, not more, likely that such a call will actually come? The answer is to choose a president who possesses the intelligence, integrity, and judgment to resist making rash decisions and to avoid creating crises where none exist.

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Maarja Krusten - 3/16/2008

For comments on this topic by some principals and historians, see also "Late Calls Rarely Merit Snap Decisions," Washington Post, March 16, 2008 at

Maarja Krusten - 3/15/2008

I think there are two points. One, as you suggest, is that historians should take into account the perception of one particular aide (Henry Kissinger) regarding one incident. Even there, that calls for contextual sophistication. The Kissinger comment is best assessed by considering how reliable his other contemporary judgements of people seem in retrospect. How he handled that can be done in part by studying what he said about people in different conversation segments of the released portions of the Nixon tapes. H. R. Haldeman's published Diary provides some insights into how Kissinger worked Nixon and other people, also.

As in assessing anything else, an historian also would need to think what may have motivated Kissinger in handling the incident as he did, and how and why he may have said what he said when the telephone call came in. The October 1973 incident may seem clear or murky, depending on how one answers those questions.

The second point is that while historians should consider assertions such as the one by Kissinger, they need to provide the necessary caveats. There simply is not enough direct evidence available to them, one way or another, about Nixon's use of alcohol that night. The broad assertion that he had a drinking problem consequently is unstainable.

Sally Gee - 3/15/2008

Isn't the real point the condition Nixon's aides thought him to be in and the fact that it conditioned their decisions and their behavior, rather than the condition Nixon was actually in?

robert m. collins - 3/13/2008

To Maarja Krusten: Thanks for a useful cautionary note.

Maarja Krusten - 3/13/2008

Mr. Creswell states, without caveats, that in October 1973, "Kissinger refused to put Nixon on the line because he was drunk (as was often the case). It was 8:30 pm. Despite the current mud slinging, no one suggests that any of the major candidates suffers from a drinking problem."

In fact, there is no way to tell whether that was the case or not. The White House taping system had been dismantled by October 1973 and there are no recordings of Nixon's conversations by which to judge his state. The assertion that the President was "loaded" derives from a single, unverifiable source -- a transcription by an aide of one of Henry Kissinger's conversations. Nixon was not involved in the conversation in question. As an historian, I would use the assertion with caution, stating that it derives from a single source and pointing out that what Kissinger said was the case cannot be verified. There simply is not way to tell what shape Nixon actually was in that evening.

Robert Dallek uses the assertion about the October 1973 conversation in his recent book on Nixon and Kissinger. But if you look carefully at what Dallek generally writes about Nixon's drinking, you see that he refers to the Kissiner comment and to the Washington rumor mill. I'm not a big fan of the Washington rumor mill as an underpinning for historical narratives.

I once had a letter to the editor published about Nixon and the drinking issue, earlier in 1973. I wrote my letter after a reporter listened to a released Watergate conversation from April 30, 1973 and described Nixon in a newspaper article as being "sloshed." The conversation was recorded at the time that Nixon had to accept the resignations of H. R. Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman. Memoirs indicate this was a very difficult time for Nixon. Here's part of what I wrote in 1996 in a letter ("Speculating About Slurred Speech") published in the Washington Post on December 7, 1996.

"His staff has given varying accounts of Nixon's alcohol consumption during his presidency. In a 1983 book on Kissinger, Seymour Hersh recounted an allegation that the president drank at night. But Ehrlichman wrote in his memoirs that, recognizing his low tolerance for alcohol, Nixon rarely drank after he assumed office.

Haldeman, who spent more time with Nixon than any other aide, described how 'Nixon couldn't drink when he was tired. One beer would transform his normal speech into the rambling elocution of a Bowery wino. What was even more bizarre was that when he was merely fatigued, not drinking at all, the same phenomenon occurred.'

In his 1994 biography of Nixon, Jonathan Aitken reported that early in his presidency (before Watergate), Nixon sometimes took the drug Dilantin for stress reduction, and that this occasionally slurred his speech.

In all fairness, a note of caution is in order when speculating whether Nixon (who, after all, was as human as the rest of us) was 'sloshed,' feeling the effects of a single drink or merely stressed out and fatigued the night of April 30."

Given historians' inability to determine the extent to which Nixon may or may not have been drinking as of late 1973, I would urge a note of caution on the issue and include caveats in recounting the assertion about the October incident. There simply is not enough evidence, by the standards in which I was trained as an historian, to present it as an undisputed fact. That Kissinger made a comment to an aide is not dispositive of the matter, in my view.

Maarja Krusten
Historian and former National Archives' Nixon tapes archivist

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 3/13/2008

The phone-call ad did two things:

1) It helped Clinton in the primaries; and

2) It helped McCain in the general election. A Rassmusson poll shows that among likely voters of all parties, 17% more would prefer McCain answer it than either Clinton or Obama.