WASHINGTON – When Dan Glickman realized he had launch codes for enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world,he remembers feeling more thoughtful than afraid.
Earlier that day,the Secret Service had whisked the agriculture secretary from Washington to his daughter’s apartment in New York. The mission was totally secret – it was Feb. 4,1997,and Glickman was serving as the president-on-deck in case Bill Clinton was assassinated during his State of the Union address that evening.
Every year,the president chooses a Cabinet member to serve as the so-called “designated survivor,” who remains in an undisclosed location during his speech. The practice ensures someone is left to run the government if a catastrophic attack kills the president,the vice president,members of Congress and the rest of the Cabinet,all gathered at the Capitol. The Cabinet member would be immediately sworn in to manage to the fallout.
The White House has not said who will be the designated survivor for this year’s State of the Union address,which is scheduled to start 9 p.m. EST Tuesday. During last year’s address,Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack stayed away from Capitol Hill. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki was the designated survivor during last month’s inaugural ceremony.
Although the president has power to choose his survivor,it is limited to the natural-born citizens older than 35,the same requirements for presidential candidates.
Glickman,who was eighth in the presidential succession line because of his position,rode in a discreet Secret Service motorcade from the airport to his daughter’s Manhattan apartment. The officers had everything he needed to run the country – including a physician and a black briefcase,which he presumes had launch codes for a nuclear retaliation.
“For a while,I was as important as the president of the United States,” Glickman said.
His mind kept drifting back to his grandfather,who immigrated from Russia in the 1890s. A century later,Glickman was getting the presidential treatment,if only for an evening.
“I just thought it was a great sense of irony,” he said.
Although the practice is seemingly straightforward,it has drawn objections from some constitutional scholars who argue the House speaker and Senate president pro tempore should not be included in the 17-person succession line. Congress has revisited the issue after 9/11,but no significant changes have been made.
After those two officials,the list includes the Cabinet officials in the order in which their departments were created: state,treasury,defense,justice,interior,agriculture,commerce,labor,health and human services,housing and urban development,transportation,energy,education,veterans affairs and homeland security.
Some argue having lawmakers in the lineup would cause a shaky transition of power. For instance,if the designated survivor took office,the new speaker of the House could simply grab the presidential reins.
Some also worry the system gives too much room for party politics by allowing the majority party – which would be determined by how many members from each side of the aisle survive such an attack – to elect a new speaker or president pro tem. That person could then immediately rise to the presidency,taking power from a lower-ranking Cabinet member such as the secretary of defense or state.
“There is a powerful constitutional argument that,in fact,it is unconstitutional,” said Miller Baker,a Washington attorney and constitutional law scholar who has testified before Congress on the issue of presidential succession. “President Obama and his party won the election,and therefore it would be highly destabilizing … any more-logical system would take congressional members out of the line of succession.”
Such hitches are thankfully theoretical,since no designated survivor has ever needed to assume office.
As Clinton headed back to the White House on that night in 1997,the Secret Service told Glickman the mission was terminated and quickly left.
With his presidential entourage gone,Glickman took his daughter out to dinner. When the two tried to get home,they couldn’t hail a cab.
“Three or four hours before,I was one of the most powerful people on the face of the Earth,and now I couldn’t even get a cab,” Glickman said.
Reach reporter Ian Kullgren at [email protected] or 202-326-2134. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.