The truth behind the ‘designated survivor,’ the official in charge of the post-apocalypse

Kiefer Sutherland stars as Tom Kirkman, a lower-level cabinet member who is suddenly appointed president of the United States after a catastrophic attack on the U.S. Capitol during the State of the Union address, in the ABC series "Designated Survivor," premering Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET. CREDIT: Ben Mark Holzberg, ABC

Tom Kirkman is having a really bad day.

First, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development discovers that all his proposals have been cut from the president’s upcoming State of the Union address. Then he’s asked to resign – the president wants to appoint a fresh face for his second term – and offered an obscure ambassadorship as a consolation prize.

Hours later, he learns that he’s that night’s “designated survivor” – the Cabinet member who sits out the president’s speech in case of a catastrophic attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Guess what? There’s a catastrophic attack on the U.S. Capitol.

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So begins “Designated Survivor,” ABC’s new Washington-based drama about an accidental president faced with the worst crisis in American history. The series, which debuts Wednesday night, stars Kiefer Sutherland as the former academic with no political experience thrust into power after the president, the vice president, the Cabinet and most members of Congress are killed.

Replete with explosions and vast conspiracies, it looks like another high-concept political thriller. But the premise is based on the real practice of sequestering someone in the presidential line of succession during the State of the Union and on similar occasions – and the controversial question of how we determine who takes over if the president and other senior officials perish.

“I’m obsessed with Washington, D.C., protocols,” says show creator David Guggenheim, who first learned about designated survivors while watching a State of the Union broadcast. “There’s inherently such a great character story in someone’s life changing in an instant, an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances.”

The concept of a “designated survivor” first arose sometime during the Cold War, amid fears that the Soviet Union could wipe out the U.S. government with one well-timed nuclear strike when all the country’s leaders were gathered in one place, such as at the State of the Union or an inauguration. It was a secretive but informal practice, with one Cabinet member omitted from the event to head the country in case of a disaster.

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Before 2001, being selected as the designated survivor was a bit of lark, a good story to share after the fact. Take the oft-told tale of Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman. In 1997, he spent the evening of the State of the Union at his daughter’s New York apartment surrounded by the highest security. Once President Bill Clinton was safely back at the White House, the agents disappeared, and Glickman – on his way to a late dinner – found himself on the street unable to find a cab in the pouring rain.

But since the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington 15 years ago, the role has become much more serious. Cabinet members selected in recent years did not return calls asking about the experience, or they answered with a stern “no comment.” Turns out, it’s a security breach to discuss any details.

This much we do know: The president and his top aides decide who will sit out that year. The designated survivor is escorted out of Washington by the U.S. Secret Service, accompanied by military and communication aides. In earlier years, the selected person was able to pick a location nearby (Bill Richardson spent the evening in Oxford, Maryland, in 2000), but since 9/11, all have been taken to the same secure government facility a couple of hours from Washington.

And a little-known fact: For the past decade, there have been two designated survivors – one Cabinet member to rebuild the executive branch and one member of the congressional leadership to lead a new legislature.

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Like the president, the designated survivor must be at least 35 years old and a natural-born citizen, so Cabinet members not born in the United States, such as former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright, are ineligible. And the designee doesn’t automatically become president: If another administration official higher in the line of succession happens to survive, he or she would take office instead. In 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was overseas during the State of the Union, but because her schedule and whereabouts were known, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan was named the designated survivor. If both had survived any attack, Clinton, outranking Donovan, would have been sworn in as president.

All this is governed by the Presidential Succession Act, which determines the exact line of succession to executive power. And, says political scholar Norm Ornstein, is “a poorly crafted piece of legislation.”

Ornstein has been writing about the issue since shortly after 9/11. When he realized that the Capitol could easily have been wiped out by the fourth hijacked plane, he identified several flaws in the current law: It sets up a line of succession based on the order in which Cabinet departments were created (rather than jumping to the better-prepared Secretary of Homeland Security, for example) and calls for special congressional elections that could take months. In the event of an attack that wiped out the nation’s leadership, “you’d have the complete fog of war,” Ornstein says. “It’s a mess the way it is now.”

He’d like to see changes that would allow governors to appoint successors to dead and incapacitated legislators so that there could be a functioning government within a week of an attack. And he also wants politicians to take a hard look at whether the historic line of succession would yield the most qualified president in the midst of a national tragedy.

Despite his lack of experience, we know that fictional President Kirkman will prevail because … hey, he’s Jack Bauer in glasses. And it’s a television series.

“From the very beginning, we wanted this to live in real Washington,” said Rich Klein, who worked in the Clinton administration and is a consultant for film and television productions including “Designated Survivor.”

“Our goal is that people who know Washington, know the presidency and know the town’s rhythms, watch the show and say, ‘They really know their stuff.’ “

Kal Penn, who took a break from acting to work briefly for President Barack Obama in the White House, plays speechwriter Seth Wright, and he also brought his real-life experience to the set, offering advice on such tiny details as who would wear badges in the White House and who would not.

But, this being Hollywood, the writers have made a few tweaks for dramatic purposes.

Kirkman, still reeling from the news that he’s been unceremoniously dumped by the administration, doesn’t find out that he’s been selected to sit out the speech until he’s preparing to leave for the Capitol. His cellphone rings. “What’s a designated survivor?” he asks. In reality, the selected official would know days before and would be secretly whisked out of Washington on the day of the address.

In the pilot, Kirkman and his wife are at a secure location (which just happens to overlook Washington), eating popcorn and watching the president’s speech. When the broadcast abruptly cuts off, Secret Service agents rush into the room as news reports of an explosion come on the air. Kirkman flings open the blast-door shutters just in time to see a fireball plume over the Capitol, and it’s clear that he’s on the other side of the Potomac River in Rosslyn, Virginia. The real designated survivors are nowhere near the nation’s capital.

And although it seems counterintuitive, taking Kirkman back to the White House to be sworn in wouldn’t be out of the question, if only to rush him to the underground Presidential Emergency Operations Center (PEOC) beneath the executive residence. (Dick Cheney and other top Bush administration officials were evacuated to the bunker on 9/11.) We’re not convinced that fictional White House staffers, having just watched the Capitol explode, would be comfortable hanging around the West Wing, but it makes for good television.

There are also a few details that look Hollywood but turn out to be real.

When Kirkman gets the news that he’s being dumped, he’s offered a job as ambassador to the International Civil Aviation Organization. That’s an actual agency of the United Nations based in Montreal that deals with global air navigation – and the representative from the United States holds the title of ambassador.

And there’s a scene where speechwriter Wright has an awkward exchange with the new president in a White House bathroom. That shoe polisher in the background? A real thing.

“Kal made sure there was one of those old-fashioned black-and-red shoe buffers plugged into the back wall,” Klein says. Because even in a global crisis, polished shoes are a must.

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