Waking up world leaders

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Delivering bad news to world leaders is a thankless task, especially when they're asleep. Anchor Laura Lynch speaks with Jonathan Powell, a former aide to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who had the job of waking Blair up when something big happened in the middle of the night.

LAURA LYNCH: I'm Laura Lynch. This is The World. When something important happens, the President has to know about it ? and quick. No world leader wants to be caught off-guard by the always-on 24-hour news media. Pity the government officials who have to decide which news events warrant suddenly pulling the boss from deep slumber. Jonathan Powell had that job. He was British Prime Minister Tony Blair's chief of staff for over a decade. Powell says these days, world leaders are woken up a little too often.

JONATHAN POWELL: On the whole, I think politicians should be allowed to sleep. They don't get enough sleep as it is. So I wouldn't always rush into waking up a Prime Minister or a President if you can avoid it. And interestingly, it's changed over time, because if you think of JFK, he wasn't woken up when nuclear missiles were found in Cuba. They let him sleep. He had a late night in New York, so they let him stay in bed. By the time you got to Ronald Reagan, he wasn't woken up when the Libyan bombers were shot down. People ask why on earth he hadn't been, and after that, there's always been a tendency to wake the leaders up almost regardless, just so they can say the next morning, ?We had to wake the leader up, told him what happened, who was in charge. ?

LYNCH: Now, you are presenting the BBC radio program about the call in the middle of the night. You've interviewed some of the people who are also responsible for waking up world leaders. Here's the former National Security Advisor Steven Hadley talking about the tough part of having to wake up former President George W. Bush.

STEVEN HADLEY: It's never good news. It's one of the burdens of the National Security Advisor, when you had to wake the President or when he was over in the living quarters, you said, ?Mr. President, there's something I need to come and see you about, and I really need to do it in person rather than over the phone,? invariably he would know, ?It's bad news.?

LYNCH: Former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley. Now, Jonathan Powell, were you ever given a hard time by Tony Blair for not waking him up?

POWELL: No. He never gave me a hard time for not waking him up. He would occasionally give me a hard time for waking him up. And he always used to say, if he saw my face, I was coming to tell him bad news, he could tell immediately by the look on my face what sort of awful, ghastly thing I was going to tell him about. So I became sort of a harbinger of doom.

LYNCH: What was the toughest news you had to tell Prime Minister Blair during your time as his chief of staff?

POWELL: The worst one that I remember was at the beginning of the second Gulf War, the beginning of the war in Iraq, when one of our helicopters came down. Actually, even slightly before the war itself had started ? the evening before it was going to start ? and a number of our servicemen died. So I had to call him and tell him about that. That was very a grim moment, and one that ? when those sort of things invade your bedroom, you're laying fast asleep and suddenly the phone goes and then next thing you know, there's a duty officer from the field, from the military, telling you these things have happened ? then it really gets into your soul.

LYNCH: Now, as part of your program, you also interviewed former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card. And he tells a story of having to wake up President George W. Bush.

POWELL: When we traveled on the road, it was not unusual for me to go to the door myself, with the Secret Service Agents standing right there, and knock on the door and then walk in and wake him up. I remember waking up the President and Laura Bush when we were in Paris; it was when Ronald Reagan had died. And I knew that he had, or would want to make a statement for consumption on the American morning television shows, so I walked into the bedroom. They were both very much asleep, and I had to shake the President to wake him up, and then Laura woke up first and said, ?What are you doing here??

LYNCH: Sometimes its not just about breaking news, it's also a necessity for a leader to take a decision or to have a debate with you in these circumstances about what to do. Can you give me any examples of an occasion like that?

POWELL: Well, that's usually in a negotiation. I mean, for example, in Northern Ireland, as you know, we had 10 years of tense negotiation to bring peace to Northern Ireland. And sometimes I would be negotiating over in Belfast very late at night, 2 or 3 in the morning, and not often but occasionally I would have to call Tony Blair up and get him out of bed and say, ?Look. I've got to decide this way or that way. Which way do you want me to go?? And those sort of reasons, I think, are good case, I think, of waking a Prime Minister or President up. Just waking up a Prime minister or President up to say you've done so strikes me as pretty crazy. But when they have to make a decision, then that's something that has to be done even if it is the middle of the night, because they're the decision maker in the end.

LYNCH: Are there ever times when you decided not to wake up the prime minister?

POWELL: Yes. There was one occasion when the (Inaudible) in the pool was blown up, I remember. And I was called by the foreign office, and they say, ?We really think you should wake the Prime Minister for this.? And I did argue. I said, ?That doesn't make any sense. We don't need to tell him this. He can wait til next morning. What decision does he make?? So sometimes you can be asked to wake the Prime Minister and it really isn't necessary. And generally speaking, I think the lesson I've drawn from my 10 years in government and the experiences of other people I've talked to, particularly in the White House, is if at all you can, you should let sleeping politicians lie.

LYNCH: Jonathan Powell is the former chief of staff to Tony Blair. Thanks for speaking with us.

POWELL: Pleasure.