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‘Three hours later, I couldn’t even get a cab’: The highs and lows of being the designated survivor at the State of the Union

 (Reuters/Getty/The Independent)
(Reuters/Getty/The Independent)

Seven years before passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 foiled al-Qaeda plans to crash the hijacked airliner into the US Capitol, author Tom Clancy imagined how such a plot could decapitate the US government in one fell swoop.

In the closing pages of his 1994 novel Debt of Honor, the newly confirmed vice president of the United States is the sole survivor of the massive explosion caused by a Boeing 747 that was deliberately crashed into the Capitol during a joint session of Congress.

It’s not known whether any of then-president George W Bush’s advisers had read Clancy’s book in the wake of the September 11 attacks, but in what was a macabre case of life imitating art by Mr Bush’s administration, then-vice president Dick Cheney was not in his customary place behind Mr Bush when he addressed Congress just over a week after those grisly attacks.

Instead, his place atop the House Speaker’s rostrum was taken by then-President Pro Tempore of the Senate, West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, while Mr Cheney spent his time at an “undisclosed location,” which years later would be revealed to be Camp David, the secure presidential retreat in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains.

While Mr Cheney’s absence was obvious to anyone who watched Mr Bush speak that day, the practice of keeping a member of the presidential line of succession away from mass gatherings of government officials — a “designated survivor” to assume the presidency in case of disaster — wasn’t new.

In his 2017 book Raven Rock, historian and journalist Garrett Graff revealed that the “designated survivor” tradition began on 18 February 1981, when newly-inaugurated president Ronald Reagan started another relatively recent tradition by delivering a speech to a joint session of Congress during his first year in office.

According to Graff, Mr Reagan’s education secretary, Terrel Bell, was on his way to the Capitol to watch the speech from the House chamber when he got a call on his car phone from Mr Reagan’s chief of staff, James Baker.

Mr Baker told Mr Bell he had both “good news and bad news” for him.

“The bad news is that you don’t get to go and hear the speech. The good news is that if the Capitol is subjected to a nuclear attack you’ll be president of the United States,” said Mr Baker, according to Mr Graff.

Since then, each time the House, the Senate, and the president’s Cabinet have gathered in one place – usually the US Capitol for a presidential inauguration or a speech to Congress – at least one person in the presidential line of succession has been kept apart.

When President Biden delivered his first State of the Union speech last year, it was Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo who was kept on reserve in case of ultimate disaster.

President Joe Biden delivers his first State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol, March 1, 2022, in Washington. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool via AP, File)
President Joe Biden delivers his first State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol, March 1, 2022, in Washington. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool via AP, File)

This year, it was Labour Secretary Marty Walsh — the first of Mr Biden’s cabinet to announce his departure from the administration — who was selected to be next President of the United States in the event of a successful decapitation strike against the government,

If that horrible possibility would come to pass, Mr Walsh would have to put aside his plans to leave government to head the National Hockey League Player’s Association.

His selection as temporary president-in-waiting is consistent with the criteria used to select previous designated survivors.

For one, it has to be someone eligible to serve as president, which means they must be a “natural-born citizen” of the US.

That rules out two of Mr Biden’s cabinet secretaries — Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas — because both are naturalised citizens. Ms Granholm was born in Canada, while Mr Mayorkas’ place of birth is Cuba.

It’s also almost never the most important members of the president’s Cabinet, such as the secretaries of state, treasury, defence, or the attorney general.

The Presidential Succession Act of 1947 made those Cabinet officers the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh in line to the presidency (after the vice president, speaker of the House and president pro tempore of the Senate) based on the order in which their respective departments were created.

Instead, it’s usually one of the newer department heads, such as the secretary of the Interior, secretary of commerce, secretary of agriculture, or secretary of transportation.

But if a particular department is going to be highlighted in the president’s speech, that person will usually be present in the House chamber so the TV cameras can easily find them when their department gets called out by the president.

Under those circumstances, being chosen as the designated survivor might be a good indicator of how little the current president values a particular department’s efforts, past designated survivors don’t feel it’s any kind of snub to be selected.

Ken Salazar, the former Colorado senator who served as secretary of the Interior during the Obama administration, said in a 2016 interview with Mic that being chosen as the designated survivor is a “a high privilege and an honour”.

“You feel the responsibility with that position — but [you're] always hoping nothing happens," said Mr Salazar, who added that the experience made for “one of those evenings that will be stored in the memory bank forever”.

Mr Salazar’s description of the designated survivor experience is likely due to the precautions that have evolved to provide the chosen Cabinet secretary with a ready-to-go presidential security package in the event that the worst happens.

According to Mr Graff, by the 1990s the protocols for the designated survivor programme had evolved to provide the chosen official, who as a Cabinet officer might normally travel with one or two bodyguards — often federal special agents from their agency’s inspector general’s office who’ve been given executive protection training — a full presidential-level Secret Service detail, complete with a motorcade featuring armoured limousines, sport-utility vehicles carrying a countersniper team, a communications vehicle with satellite links to the Pentagon and White House Situation Room, a jamming vehicle to protect against improvised roadside bombs, and an ambulance.

The designated survivor’s entourage also includes a White House military aide, the Army, Naval, Marine Corps, Air Force or Space Force officer who brings with them the “football” — the briefcase which allows the president to launch America’s nuclear weapons. The chosen cabinet officer also gets a “Sealed Authenticator System” card which would, if necessary, identify them to the Pentagon officials to whom they’d give launch orders.

Bill Richardson, the ex-New Mexico governor who served as energy secretary during the Clinton administration, told ABC News in 2019 that the presidential-level entourage “caused quite a ruckus” when he served as designated survivor for then-president Bill Clinton’s final State of the Union in January 2000.

Mr Richardson used the time to get an early start on a planned trip to the small town of Oxford, Maryland.

"The whole town must have thought there was a national emergency or a fire," he said.

But as soon as the president stops speaking and the Cabinet leaves the Capitol that night, there’s no more need for a designated survivor, and the massive coterie of security and personnel vanishes.

Dan Glickman, who served as Mr Clinton’s agriculture secretary, recalled the experience to NBC News in an interview.

He said he’d spent the evening watching the then-president’s speech in his daughter’s New York apartment, but the security detail he’d been afforded disappeared by the time he left for dinner. It was snowing, and Mr Glickman was stranded without a ride.

“Only three hours before, I was potentially the most powerful person in the world,” Mr Glickman said. “Three hours later, I couldn’t even get a cab.”