The epithet “lazy” gets hurled around the corridors of power a lot these days, whether in reference to President Obama’s 160 golf games through five years in office or to the “do-nothing” 113th Congress that was not only the least popular legislative body in U.S. history but also the least productive. And that’s just last month in Washington.
We expect our political leaders to be as industrious as they are powerful. Margaret Thatcher famously got by on four hours of sleep per night. A professor at Georgetown once told a young Bill Clinton that great men require less sleep (Clinton averaged five hours per night throughout his presidency).
Coolidge was fond of placing his feet in the bottom drawer of his Oval Office desk and counting the cars passing by on Pennsylvania Avenue.
“Determine never to be idle,” another U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson, remarked. “It is wonderful how much may be done if we are always doing.”
But not everyone who has held the reins of power has been so diligent. From dictators to emperors to presidents, here are some of history’s most powerful layabouts.
The 30th U.S. president may have presided over the 1920s economic boom, but he did so despite (or because of) working a meager four hours per day at the White House. Not content to rest on his 11 hours of sleep per night, plus daily naps, “Silent Cal” was fond of placing his feet in the bottom drawer of his Oval Office desk and counting the cars passing by on Pennsylvania Avenue. When he died a few years after leaving office, Gertrude Stein is said to have remarked, “Coolidge dead? How can you tell?”
From his days as a struggling art student in Austria to the pinnacle of the Third Reich’s power, Adolf Hitler was an accomplished laggard. One of his biographers, Ian Kershaw, describes how the indolent Fuehrer, having stayed up late the night before watching movies like Gone with the Wind or listening to music, would often not emerge from bed until after midday, just in time for a late lunch and a few meetings with advisors.
William Lamb, better known as Lord Melbourne, once quipped that he thought being prime minister would be a “damned bore.” And when the Whig politician became British PM in 1834, he set about confirming that suspicion: His tendency to snooze through cabinet meetings, parliamentary debates and dinners earned him a reputation as a chronic laggard and prompted Benjamin Disraeli to demand that he “cease to saunter over the destinies of a nation and lounge away an empire.” Melbourne — whose favorite dictum was “Why not leave it alone?” — was equally idle when it came to his private life, declining to separate from his adulterous wife for more than a decade after she had scandalized him by having an affair with Lord Byron (and writing a tell-all book about it).
George W. Bush
Former president George W. Bush was one of the more physically active U.S. presidents, often rising for early-morning workouts and going on lengthy bike rides. But during his eight years in office, he spent an astonishing 879 days on vacation, including 77 trips to his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Yes, it’s true that modern presidents are never truly on vacation, but 879 days?! That means Bush effectively spent about two and a half years, or 30 percent, of his presidency away from his desk, not to mention the nation’s seat of government.
The longest-ruling emperor of the Ming Dynasty in China, Wanli came to power at the age of 9 in 1572 and appears to have flamed out rather early. During the last 30 years or so of his 47-year rule, Emperor Wanli descended into a life of food, drink and debauchery, becoming so obese in his later years that he needed assistance just to stand up. He almost entirely neglected state affairs, refusing to read reports, leaving ministers to have audiences with an empty throne and failing to attend public ceremonies, including his mother’s funeral.
Laziness is not always a bad thing though. “I’m lazy,” the former Polish leader Lech Walesa once admitted. “But it’s the lazy people who invented the wheel and the bicycle because they didn’t like walking or carrying things.”
This OZY encore was originally published Feb. 24, 2014.
Why you should care
Because with a little bit of luck, someone else will do the blinkin’ work.