On Wednesday night, people will tune into “Designated Survivor,” the newest television series on ABC starring Kiefer Sutherland.
The story will follow the most catastrophic of all scenarios: the president, vice president, and nearly every other important leader in Washington killed in an attack on the Capitol. It will be left to Sutherland as the designated survivor to lead the country in the wake of the attack.
The new series will try to create the most unimaginable of situations, however, the idea of a designated survivor is a very real protocol in the United States’ continuity of government.
The practice began during the Cold War in the 1980s by having at least one member of the presidential line of succession not attend presidential inaugurations, State of the Union addresses, or other events where the president, vice president, and cabinet members are in attendance.
“It is something that is taken very, very, seriously,” said former United States Attorney General and native Texan Alberto Gonzales. “Particularly in this very dangerous time we live in today, where weapons of mass destruction are not totally out of the question.”
While serving as the attorney general under President George W. Bush, Gonzales was chosen to serve as the designated survivor during the 2007 State of the Union. The President’s Chief-of-Staff Josh Bolton informed him he would have that duty.
The AG is seventh in the line of presidential succession.
“I was given a couple of options as far as what I could do that evening during President Bush’s State of the Union, and my selection required me to be in an airplane," he said.
He arrived at Andrews Air Force Base, where he said a member of every major department and agency was on hand, carrying thick binders filled with protocols and procedures should a major catastrophe take place at the capitol.
As an advisor for Bush during the president’s first term which included the 9/11 attack and two wars, Gonzales was no stranger to big moments and decisions. But he said the gravity of being designated survivor hit him as he sat aboard the plan watching the president’s speech.
“It suddenly hit me, 'Oh gosh, if something happened back in Washington, would I and the others on the plane be able to govern a wounded nation?'” the former attorney general said.
Gonzales, now the dean of the law school at Belmont University in Nashville, is not sure who makes the decision on picking the designated survivor, but he suspects the president and advisors make the decision based on several factors.
“I guess there is some thinking that goes into the designated survivor," he said. "Does that person have the judgment to become president of the United States? And has that person been involved in policy decisions?”
It is an experience he talks about -- along with many others from his time in the Bush Administration -- in his new book "True Faith and Allegiance." He will be at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas for a book signing on Oct. 13.
As for the television series, Gonzales said he will be watching, but won’t exactly be thinking “what might have been” while watching Sutherland on his TV screen.
“I don’t know if I’ll go that far,” he laughed. “I am sure it will be a good show and hopefully will be a show that will educate the American public about some of the unique opportunities that those of us in government have to serve our country.”
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