Holder Draws 'Survivor' Duty

President Obama's first major address to a Joint Session of Congress on Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2009.Video: AP
By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. did not attend President Obama's speech to Congress last night, instead serving as the "designated survivor," or the Cabinet secretary who by tradition stays at an undisclosed location to ensure continuity of government in case of a catastrophic event.

Holder is the third attorney general in recent history to stay away from a big event: Alberto R. Gonzales did not attend President George W. Bush's 2007 State of the Union address, and John Ashcroft stayed away in 2003.

The first acknowledgment of an absent Cabinet secretary appears to have been in 1963, when then-Rep. Charles S. Joelson (D-N.J.) told The Washington Post that "seldom if ever do all of the Cabinet members show up for joint sessions." The White House began publicly releasing the name of the designated secretary during the Nixon administration, according to Donald A. Ritchie, associate historian in the Senate Historical Office.

Since 1984, records show, the interior secretary has skipped the big speech most often. Last year, Dirk Kempthorne did not attend Bush's final State of the Union speech. Other interior secretaries staying away: Gale Norton in 2002, Bruce Babbitt in 1993, Manuel Lujan in 1991 and Donald P. Hodel in 1988.

Donald Evans, commerce secretary from 2001 to 2005, is the only Cabinet secretary to serve as designated survivor twice, in 2004 and 2005.

As for how an administration picks the designated Cabinet secretary, "Usually you just kind of look around and if somebody hasn't been good that week, appoint them," joked John H. Sununu, President George H.W. Bush's first chief of staff.

In 1996, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala got the call and decided to camp out at the White House with her senior staff while President Bill Clinton was on Capitol Hill.

"Some people have gotten on airplanes and gone places, but I didn't want to spend any money, so I just ordered pizza and went to the Roosevelt Room," she said. Shalala admitted that she briefly checked in on the Oval Office and sat at the presidential desk.

In 2000, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson and his wife, Barbara, traveled to the town of Sherwood, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where they dined on crab cakes at the home of friends Rogelio and Nancy Novey.

"I didn't know if I should feel good or bad about it," Richardson said in an interview. "I always enjoyed the State of the Union. I was in Congress many years, so I was regretting missing it, but at the same time, I was doing my responsibility, my duty."

Clinton's second agriculture secretary, Dan Glickman, had perhaps the most humbling experience as the designated survivor. In 1997, Glickman flew to New York and watched the speech from his daughter's Lower Manhattan apartment. He parted ways with his temporary Secret Service detail after the speech and headed out into a cold, rainy night for a late dinner with his daughter. Unable to catch a cab after the meal, the pair walked the 10 blocks back to her apartment.

"It's a parable for what happens to all of us: One moment you're on top of the world, and the next moment you can't catch a cab," Glickman said yesterday.

Read Ed O'Keefe's Federal Eye blog at http://www.washingtonpost.com/federaleye.

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