Late Calls Rarely Merit Snap Decisions

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There is no dispute, as a dramatic campaign ad from Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign suggests, that presidents get plenty of phone calls at 3 a.m.

A sleeping Ronald Reagan was alerted early in the morning to what turned out to be the accidental shoot-down of an Iranian passenger plane. George H.W. Bush was informed after he went to bed of an apparent coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Bill Clinton received word in the middle of the night that negotiations had broken down in the case of Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boy whose relatives were battling the federal government to prevent him from returning home.

But in none of these cases were presidents asked to make major decisions. Instead, former White House advisers say, these calls -- and countless others like them -- were largely aimed at keeping the president informed of critical developments, particularly ones that might cause embarrassment if the public learned that a commander in chief had slept through the episode undisturbed.

"In my experience, I cannot think, off the top of my head, of a snap decision that had to be made in the middle of the night," said Henry A. Kissinger, the former secretary of state and national security adviser. In fact, he said in an interview, "I think that one should reduce the number of snap decisions to be made."

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