Who succeeds the president in the event of death or incapacity? There’s a list of nearly 20 officials—starting with the vice president and the speaker of the House—whose top leadership roles place them squarely in line for the job. Then there’s the wild card: a “designated survivor” who gets the job in case all those people have been killed in a catastrophic event.
There are only a handful of occasions when America’s top leaders gather in the same room. Most commonly, the president's annual State of the Union address usually convenes not only the president, vice president and both houses of Congress, but all nine Supreme Court justices and members of the president’s cabinet. As awful as it is to imagine, a targeted nuclear strike or terrorist attack on the Capitol building during such an event could wipe out nearly the entire leadership of the U.S. federal government in one fell swoop.
The Constitution gives Congress the responsibility of establishing a line of succession if the president or vice president die or are removed from office. But there’s nothing in the founding documents addressing a so-called “decapitation strike” in which virtually all top-tier federal officials are killed at once. That’s why American presidents dating back to at least the 1960s have selected a designated survivor—always a member of their cabinet—to sit out the State of the Union and other large political gatherings like inaugurations and presidential speeches to joint sessions of Congress. But only since the 1980s has the identity of this non-attendee been made public, along with some intriguing anecdotes about their odd night out.
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The Designated Survivor Protocol Gained Urgency During the Cold War
Congress passed the original Presidential Succession Act in 1792, naming the president pro tempore of the Senate next in line after the vice president, followed by the speaker of the House of Representatives. The act was amended twice, in 1886 and 1947, when it landed on the current order of succession: vice president, speaker of the House, Senate president pro tempore. After that come members of the president’s cabinet in the order in which their cabinet positions were created, starting with the secretary of state and ending with the secretary of homeland security.
It’s no coincidence that the last time the presidential line of succession was amended came during 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 nukes targeting Washington, D.C. Of course, a long line of succession wouldn’t do much good if the entire group was sitting in the same room during an attack. That’s when historians believe the designated survivor protocol was hatched.
“In the early years of the atomic age, there was a realization that a scheme to maintain some element of constitutional legitimacy became important if a nuclear attack otherwise eliminated all actors who could ascend to the presidency,” says Gerhard Peters, co-director of The American Presidency Project, an online hub of presidential public documents hosted at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
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When Did Presidents Start Picking a Designated Survivor?
So who was the very first designated survivor? That information has never been declassified. According to the Senate Historical Office, the practice of one cabinet official sitting out the State of the Union dates to at least the early 1960s, “and perhaps much earlier.” The first designated survivor acknowledged by the White House was Education Secretary Terrel Bell, who was absent from President Ronald Reagan’s 1981 address to a joint session of Congress, but Bell wasn’t 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 never uses the term “designated survivor,” though. It calls them “the cabinet member not in attendance.”
Between 1984 and 2020, presidents have chosen the secretary of the interior the most (seven times), followed by the agriculture secretary (six) and the secretary of veterans affairs (four). Only two female cabinet members have officially been selected as the designated survivor. (A third, secretary of state Hillary Clinton missed the 2010 State of the Union, and though she wasn’t the designated survivor, outranked the chosen secretary, succession-wise.) None yet have come from the departments of state, treasury or labor.
Not every cabinet member qualifies for the role. Candidates must meet the two basic eligibility requirements for the presidency, which are being at least 35 years old and a natural-born U.S. citizen. For example, several foreign-born cabinet members were out of the running, including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (Czechoslovakia) and Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao (Taiwan).
In recent years, Congress has also selected a senator to skip the State of the Union as well as a senior congressional staffer.
What’s It Like to Be the Designated Survivor?
In a word, surreal. While former designated survivors can’t share all of the details of their high-security sequester, some interesting nuggets of information have surfaced.
Individuals learn that they’ve been selected as the designated survivor a few weeks before the State of the Union. Sworn to secrecy, they then receive some kind of undisclosed special training that prepares them for the remote possibility of stepping into the president’s shoes. "They walked 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, who was tapped by Bill Clinton in 1996, told ABC News in 2014.
On the night of the State of the Union Address, the designated survivor is usually whisked away by a Secret Service detail, along with the “Football,” the 45-pound briefcase containing the top-secret launch codes for America’s nuclear arsenal. 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 thrown in.
In 1986, Ronald Reagan's agricultural secretary, John Block, rode out the event in a friend's Jamaican villa. In 2000, Clinton's energy secretary, Bill Richardson, enjoyed a roast beef dinner at a home on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Shalala, bucking the trend, said she camped in the White House, eating pizza with staff. Clinton had told her before he left for the Capitol, "'Don't do anything I wouldn't do,'" she told ABC News. "I went to the Oval Office and for one minute sat in the president's chair."
In 1997, former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman asked to be flown to New York City so he could watch the address in his daughter’s apartment. After the broadcast, which they watched alongside Secret Service agents and a military officer with the “Football,” the security detail told Glickman "the mission is terminated" and offered him a flight back to D.C. Instead, he took his daughter out for Japanese food, noting the irony that a few hours after serving as fail-safe for the leader of the free world, he couldn't get a cab in the rain.
The 9/11 attacks in 2001 escalated the seriousness and secrecy of the designated survivor protocol. Alex Vogel, the designated Senate staffer chosen to sit out the 2004 State of the Union, remembers being flown off in an aging military helicopter through pitch-black darkness. since the pilots, wearing night-vision goggles, had turned off all interior and exterior lights. They arrived at an unnamed secure location equipped 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 TV wheeled in on a cart. The dining room, he said, had “thicker than normal doors.”
While the prospect of a "decapitation strike" remains highly unlikely, designated survivors carry a sudden and staggeringly heavy weight—if only for a few hours. "You think about the cataclysm that would have to occur for you to be president and the situation in the country that would ensue," Jim Nicholson, the former veterans' affairs secretary chosen during President George W. Bush's 2006 address, told ABC News. "To become the president at that moment would be a really difficult, surreal experience."