Ever heard of the Netflix series ‘Designated Survivor’? The political thriller, starring Kiefer Sutherland, traces the life of a lowly cabinet minister Thomas Kirkman who is forced to rise to the occasion as the ‘designated survivor’ when a mysterious attack kills the president and wipes out everybody in the line of succession.

While the plot may seem too far-fetched, this practice of the US President designating a “survivor” to stay away from the Capitol in case disaster strikes isn’t new. Going by the Senate Historical Office, the practice of one Cabinet official skipping large in-person events dates back to the early 1960s as a Cold War-era policy to keep the government from being dismantled completely. However, the practice of announcing who that person would be only began in the 1980s.

This year, the ‘designated survivor’ was Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.

But how is a ‘designated survivor’ picked? Anyone at least 35 years of age and a natural-born US citizen can be the designated survivor. The designated survivor is usually chosen at random and is given some training ahead of time, although what exactly happens is classified. 

Despite that, a few of the previously designated survivors have opened up about their experience. 

Dan Glickman, who served as Secretary of Agriculture in the Clinton administration, wrote in Politico in 2017 that he was “taken to a location outside of Washington (my daughter’s apartment in New York), where I was accompanied by key military staff and Secret Service, including a military officer carrying what I presumed to be the nuclear football—a black, leather-encased aluminium briefcase that would be used to authenticate the person ordering a nuclear strike”.

He terms the experience a “terrible responsibility”. “It felt like an awesome responsibility to put on one man’s shoulders, even if it was exceedingly unlikely the president—or in this case, the secretary of agriculture—would ever have to use it,” Glickman wrote. “I sometimes wonder if I would have had the courage to give the order.”

Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who was selected for the job by then-president George W. Bush in 2007, thought it was a “sobering thought”.

Gonzales, in a media interview, said how he was approached by former White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten about a week before Bush’s 2007 address. He was presented with two options in terms of what he could do the evening of the address. “The option I chose was to put me in an aeroplane during the State of the Union,” Gonzales said. “I just felt perhaps it would be kind of cool to fly around as the president gave the State of the Union.” 

He was then taken to Joint Base Andrews where individuals from every major department and agency met him. They all carried big binders of protocols and procedures needed to advise him in the event he became president.

“It was at that point in time where I suddenly realised, ‘Oh, my gosh, if something happened back at the Capitol, then conceivably, I would become president of the United States,'” Gonzalez said. “It is a sobering thought, quite frankly.” 

Bill Daley, the designated survivor in 1998, shared an interesting moment in his stint. Daley, who was the chosen one during Bill Clinton’s speech in 1998, told West Wing Playbook that he enjoyed an early dinner with his brother before going to a friend’s house to watch President Clinton’s speech. 

The moment Clinton arrived back at the White House, Daley was in for a rude shock. All the Secret Service agents who were glued to Daley all day quickly dispersed, leaving him without a way home. “I was like, ‘How about a ride?” Daley recalled. “There wasn’t Uber then, so one of my friends gave me a ride back home.”

While the then Labour Secretary Marty Walsh was the designated survivor in 2023, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo was given the task in 2022.

That said, the experience of being the ‘designated survivor’ is nothing like what is shown in the Netflix series. According to former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson — one of the few government officials selected for the role twice — gave up on watching the show altogether after one episode.

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