Who is the United States’ ‘designated survivor?’

Kiefer Sutherland portrays Tom Kirkman in a scene from the new TV series"Designated Survivor." (Ben Mark Holzberg/ABC via AP)
Kiefer Sutherland portrays Tom Kirkman in a scene from the new TV series"Designated Survivor." (Ben Mark Holzberg/ABC via AP)

KNOXVILLE (WATE) – ABC’s much-anticipated new thriller “Designated Survivor” is getting a lot of buzz.

Wednesday on WATE 6 On Your Side Kiefer Sutherland stars as a low level cabinet member who suddenly finds himself drafted as the nation’s chief executive after an attack on the U.S. Capitol kills the president and wipes out Congress during the State of the Union Address. The creator of the show said he actually came up with the idea after watching the State of the Union.

For each State of the Union address, the White House chief of staff selects a cabinet-level official as the designated survivor, who spends the State of the Union night in an undisclosed location. They serve as a potential president-in-waiting in the event there is a catastrophic incident in the House chamber during the State of the Union.

During the 2016 State of the Union Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson was the designated survivor. Johnson, 58, has been head of the Department of Homeland Security since 2013 and is only the fourth person to serve in the position. He previously served as a general counsel at the Department of Defense.

The concept of a “designated survivor” came about during the Cold War when there were fears of a nuclear attack. Only Cabinet members who were eligible to succeed the presidency are chosen.

Since 2005, members of Congress have also served as designated survivors. There is also a designated staffer, a senior level aide who is held back from the State of the Union to help the designated survivors. The practice of selecting a designated survivor became more formal and important after 9/11.

Nashville resident once served as designated survivor

A prominent Nashville resident once played the role in real life on a wintry Washington night in 2007.

In an interview with WKRN, Alberto Gonzales, who is now Dean of the Belmont University College of Law after serving a decade ago as U.S. Attorney General, describes being the “designated survivor” for a few hours during the State of the Union address nearly nine years ago.

“As I listened to President George W. Bush addressing the nation, I felt for the first time the full weight of the consequences [as unlikely as they were] of a catastrophic attack,” he writes in the prologue to his brand-new book, “True Faith and Allegiance.”

The former Attorney General describes spending much of that January 2007 evening in the air “‘on a large government airplane… equipped to serve as a flying command center.”

Gonzales remembered the gravity of the moment by adding, “A senior member of every major federal department and agency accompanied me, each carrying thick binders laying out protocols and classified procedures to advise me in the event I assumed the presidency following a disaster in Washington.”

During the few hours in the air, he writes about glancing at those “individuals who would become part of my new team should the unthinkable occur. I wondered momentarily if we would be up to the job of governing a wounded nation in the face of such a horrific nightmare.”

The once “designated survivor” ends his book prologue by saying he “breathed a sigh of relief” when the plane returned to Andrews Air Force Base “with a whole new appreciated for the person serving as the president of the United States.”

Designated survivors

  • January 31, 2006 – Jim Nicholson, Secretary of Veterans Affairs and Ted Stevens (R-AK), President Pro Tempore of the Senate
  • January 23, 2007 – Alberto Gonzales, Attorney General
  • January 28, 2008 – Dirk Kempthorne, Secretary of the Interior
  • January 20, 2009 – Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense
  • February 24, 2009 – Eric Holder, Attorney General
  • September 9, 2009 – Steven Chu, Secretary of Energy
  • January 27, 2010 – Shaun Donovan, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
  • January 25, 2011 – Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior
  • January 24, 2012 – Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture
  • January 21, 2013 – Eric Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs
  • February 12, 2013 – Steven Chu, Secretary of Energy
  • January 28, 2014 – Ernest Moniz, Secretary of Energy
  • January 20, 2015 – Anthony Foxx, Secretary of Transportation
  • January 12, 2016 – Orrin Hatch (R-UT), President Pro Tempore of the Senate and Jeh Johnson, Secretary of Homeland Security

WKRN-TV contributed to this report

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s