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For Find Out Friday Week 14- What Role Does a Designated Survivor Play?


Many new parents have rules that prohibit their children from watching too much TV, a rule that didn’t exist for me when I was young. Apparently TV watching didn’t mess me up too badly. Plus back then we didn’t have cable so it was probably more boring and static than anything else. In fact I feel the exact opposite way, I feel like I learn as much from television as I do from reading a book and I am passionate about both forms of entertainment.

One of the new shows this fall that I have started to watch regularly is Designated Survivor (DS), a legal concept I have known about since I started studying law in high school. Simply put a designated survivor is a Cabinet member that the President chooses to essentially miss the State of the Union. They must stay at another location with secret service until the entire event is over. The President alternates which Cabinet member he chooses but odds are it is usually the Secretary of Labor, Agriculture, or Housing as they are lowest on the totem pole.

The designated survivor would become President if every other person in the line of succession (i.e. Vice President, Speaker of the House and so on) were killed. The sole purpose is so that if the government leadership is gone there will still be someone in charge. I mean think about it, Supreme Court Justices, Senate, Congress, local politicians are all present at the State of the Union annual address. Of course there are also family members and special visitors that will also suffer their demise as well if something were to happen. It is the ultimate in safety clauses. It is like a presidential insurance policy.

Presidential lines of succession officially began when President Truman signed into law the Presidential Succession Act in 1947. A prior act in 1792 had placed the Senate president and Speaker of the House in the line but in 1886 Congress removed them. Finally in 1947 the resolution was that after the President, it was Vice President (technically the head of the Senate), Speaker of the House, then the Senate President Pro Tempore. If you are curious for how the line proceeds from here it follows: the Secretary of State, the Treasury Secretary, the Defense secretary, the Attorney General, followed by the remaining members of the Cabinet.

When George W. Bush was president I used to think if he had been assassinated and Dick Cheney died from one of his many heart ailments, then our president would have been Speaker of the House Democrat Nancy Pelosi. She was the first female Speaker and I think would have made a good president then.

On the big night the designated survivor role is taken very seriously, dead seriously in fact. They are held at a secret location- in fact who the DS remains secret until after the government officials have returned home safely- under tight control of the Secret Service. Once the DS has been selected until the night of the State of the Union there are many protocols practiced as a drill just in case. All the nuclear codes and everything a new president would need remain on location under lock and key with the DS that night. Thankfully, while some presidents have died in office thus promoting that Vice President to the highest office in the land, there has never been an incident where a designated survivor has had to become the Commander in Chief.

Though the DS role is mainly used for the State of the Union addresses it is also now used on inauguration day. We are living in a post 9/11 world so its necessary to ensure that these processes are taken very seriously.

It is typically thought that the role of the designated survivor came about during the 1960s because of U.S. involvement with Russia during the Cold War. However this information has never been confirmed due to the high levels of security that remains. It was during the 1980s when the public was first made aware that a DS even existed. If you check out the first link below you can see the full historic record of all previous designated survivors.

As of 2003, just like in the show, there are additional designated survivors so that a member from each part of Congress can maintain order and succeed if need be. This was new information for me. See I told you I learn a lot from watching TV.

In 2015 the designated survivor was Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and in 2016 it was Department of Homeland Security Chief Jeh Johnson.

It should be noted that when the President and his staff are selecting a designated survivor the person they select will have to meet the same criteria as anyone who runs for the office of the president. That means he or she will have to be at least thirty-five years old and a natural born citizen of the U.S. of A.

Also if a Cabinet member who is higher on the typical line of succession than the DS survives, they ascend to the presidency. That would be a low blow though.

In what I now call the irony of all ironies, a bit of trivia related to our upcoming presidential election. In 2010 then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan both missed the State of the Union, though it was the Secretary of Housing who had been selected to sit out as the designated survivor.

Secretary Clinton missed the event as she was in London meeting with foreign officials on behalf of President Obama. However, as Secretary of State she would have been next in the line of succession. I truly believe it is her destiny to become president one way or another.

Furthermore Kiefer Sutherland, star of Designated Survivor, (the television show) character was previously the Housing and Urban Development Secretary prior to becoming president after a national tragedy.

Kal Penn who has returning to acting after working for President Obama in the White House, also has a place in Sutherland’s White House. It seems life is imitating art, which begins to imitate life all over again.

See irony after irony after irony, just like I told ya.

P.S. I wouldn’t mind Mr. Sutherland becoming my president he makes it look sexy as hell.

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