Who succeeds the president in the event of death or incapacity? There’s a roster of nearly 20 public servants – starting with the Deputy Speaker and Speaker of the House – whose key leadership roles put them squarely in line for the job. Then there’s the wild card: a “designated survivor” who gets the job in case all of these people are killed in a catastrophic event.
There are only a handful of occasions when America’s top leaders come together in the same room. More often than not, the president’s annual State of the Union address typically summons not only the president, vice president and both houses of Congress, but the nine justices of the Supreme Court and members of the president’s cabinet. . As gruesome as it may sound, a targeted nuclear strike or terrorist attack on the Capitol building during such an event could wipe out virtually all of the leadership of the US federal government in one fell swoop.
The Constitution gives Congress the responsibility of establishing a line of succession if the president or vice-president dies or is removed from office. But there is nothing in the founding documents dealing with a so-called “beheading strike” in which virtually all top federal officials are killed at the same time. This is why American presidents dating back to at least the 1960s have chosen a designated survivor – still a member of their cabinet – to ignore the State of the Union and other large political gatherings like inaugurations and presidential speeches at joint sessions of Congress. But it’s only since the 1980s that the identity of this non-participant has been made public, along with some intriguing anecdotes about their strange evening.
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Designated survivor protocol became urgent during the Cold War
Congress passed the first Presidential Succession Act in 1792, appointing the next Senate President pro tempore after the Vice President, followed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives. The law was amended twice, in 1886 and 1947, when it landed on the current order of succession: Vice President, Speaker of the House, Speaker of the Senate pro tempore. Next are the members of the President’s cabinet in the order in which their positions were created, starting with the Secretary of State and ending with the Secretary of Homeland Security.
It is no coincidence that the last change in the presidential line of succession came at the start of the Cold War. Under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, federal officials introduced the concept of “continuity of government” to deal with the very real threat of Soviet nuclear weapons targeting Washington, DC Of course, a long line of succession wouldn’t do much. thing if the whole group were sitting in the same room during an attack. This is when historians believe the Designated Survivor Protocol was developed.
“In the early years of the atomic age, it was realized that a plan to maintain an element of constitutional legitimacy was becoming important if a nuclear attack otherwise wiped out all those who could take the presidency,” says Gerhard Peters, Co-Director of The US Presidency Project, an online center for presidential public documents hosted at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
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When did presidents start choosing a designated survivor?
So who was the very first named survivor? This information has never been declassified. According to the Historic Senate Office, the practice of a Cabinet official serving on the State of the Union dates back to at least the early 1960s, “and possibly long before.” The first designated survivor recognized by the White House was Education Secretary Terrel Bell, absent from President Ronald Reagan’s 1981 speech to a joint session of Congress, but Bell was not identified until long after the event.
It wasn’t until 1984 that the White House began publicly releasing the name of the designated survivor on the same day as the State of the Union address. The White House, however, never uses the term “designated survivor”. He calls them “the absent cabinet member”.
Between 1984 and 2020, presidents most often chose the secretary of the interior (seven times), followed by the secretary of agriculture (six) and the secretary of veterans (four). Only two female cabinet members were officially selected as designated survivors. (A third, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton missed the 2010 State of the Union, and although she was not the named survivor, outstripped the chosen secretary, in regard to succession. ) None have yet come from the State, Treasury or Labor Departments. .
Not all members of the firm are qualified for this role. Applicants must meet the two basic eligibility requirements for the presidency, which are at least 35 years of age and a U.S. citizen by birth. For example, several foreign-born cabinet members were not in the running, including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (Czechoslovakia) and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao (Taiwan).
In recent years, Congress has also selected a senator to ignore the State of the Union as well as a senior congressional staff member.
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How does it feel to be the Designated Survivor?
In a word, surreal. While the former named survivors cannot share all of the details of their high-security receivership, nuggets of interesting information have surfaced.
Individuals learn they were selected as Designated Survivors weeks before the State of the Union. Sworn into secrecy, they then receive some sort of special, undisclosed training that prepares them for the distant possibility of putting themselves in the president’s shoes. “They took you through the White House and showed you the situation room and talked seriously about the responsibility of the Designated Survivor,” former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala told ABC News in 2014, which was bugged by Bill Clinton in 1996.
On the night of the State of the Union Speech, the Designated Survivor is usually taken away by a Secret Service detail, along with “Football,” the 45-pound briefcase containing the arsenal’s top-secret launch codes. American nuclear power. Typically, the Designated Survivor is flown to an undisclosed location where he or she watches the State of the Union broadcast in the company of stone-faced Secret Service agents, usually with a good meal. .
In 1986, Ronald Reagan’s Agriculture Secretary John Block hosted the event at a friend’s Jamaican villa. In 2000, Clinton’s Energy Secretary Bill Richardson enjoyed a roast beef dinner at a home on Maryland’s east coast. Shalala, going against the grain, said she had camped out in the White House, eating pizza with the staff. Clinton had told her before leaving for the Capitol, “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” she told ABC News. “I went to the Oval Office and for a minute I sat in the president’s chair.”
In 1997, former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman requested to be airlifted to New York City so that he could look up the address in his daughter’s apartment. After the show, which they watched alongside Secret Service agents and a military “Football” officer, the security service told Glickman that “the mission was over” and offered him a flight. back to DC. Instead, he took his daughter to find Japanese food. , noting the irony that within hours of serving as fail-safe for the leader of the free world, he couldn’t get a cab in the rain.
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The September 11, 2001 attacks heightened the gravity and secrecy of the designated survivor protocol. Alex Vogel, the designated Senate staff member chosen not to participate in the 2004 State of the Union, recalls flying in an aging military helicopter in the dark. since the pilots, wearing night vision goggles, had turned off all interior and exterior lights. They arrived at an unnamed secure place with bunk beds and plenty of toilet paper. There they were served an opulent meal – steak and lobster – as they watched the address on a television rolled up in a cart. The dining room, he said, had “thicker than normal doors.”
While the prospect of a “decapitation attack” remains highly unlikely, the named survivors bear a sudden and incredibly heavy weight – if only for a few hours. “You think of the cataclysm that would have to happen for you to be president and the situation in the country that would ensue,” Jim Nicholson, the former veterans affairs secretary chosen during the president’s speech, told ABC News. George W. Bush in 2006. “To become president then would be a really difficult and surreal experience.”