House Speaker Carl Albert stands in the East Room of the White House, right hand raised to take the oath of office as president, left hand on the family Bible. It is fall, 1973. A beleaguered Spiro T. Agnew is gone. Richard M. Nixon has resigned under the Watergate cloud. Gerald R. Ford stands nearby -- a Republican vice president under President Carl Albert, a Democrat.
The scene is more than merely what-might-have-been. It is the opening part of a secret blueprint for a presidential transition from Nixon to Albert. Theodore C. Sorensen, who had been President Kennedy's White House adviser, asked for the assignment and wrote a 19-page "comprehensive contingency plan."
The contents of that memo and correspondence, locked in Albert's personal safe for nine years, describe a time when the House member from Oklahoma stood first in line of succession during Nixon's tottering presidency.
For 58 days between Agnew's resignation Oct. 10, 1973, and Ford's confirmation as vice president Dec. 6, Albert was the immediate successor to President Nixon.
"It was, of course, a period of political and emotional turmoil," Sorensen recalled. "We knew that the future of the presidency was in doubt and, with the office of vice president vacant, the country faced the possibility of unprecedented political succession in which the Democrats Albert might take over the executive branch without having been chosen for that role in an election.
"I don't believe there was any sense of partisan glee or desire to push such a change, but there was concern that if it came about it be done in the most responsible fashion possible."
So sensitive was the plan that its first paragraph provided for its destruction: "Should a new Vice President be confirmed before a presidential vacancy occurs, or should the president Nixon serve out his term, this entire memorandum will become unnecessary and can be destroyed (if you fear that its existence, if discovered, might be misinterpreted as evidence of an improper motivation on your part for the President's ouster)."
But the plan was not destroyed. Today Albert, 74, is working on his memoirs, and Sorensen is a lawyer in private practice. Both agreed to give The Washington Post a copy of that plan as a footnote to history and the Watergate era.
Sorensen's document, dated Nov. 8, 1973, provides Albert with a step-by-step checklist of how and what to do "in those first hours and days of unprecedented pressure" as president.
The candid and thoughtful plan embraces a wide range of subjects: the appropriate tenor of the inauguration, the "succession theme" to be sounded with the media and Congress, risks and pitfalls of office, what to tell Nixon, preservation of Nixon's files for future investigators, a "quick fix" briefing on national security matters, a "basis" for "the earliest public statements as president," "wise men" and "elder statesmen" such as Earl Warren, Elliot L. Richardson, Archibald Cox and George W. Ball to be consulted and many other duties immediately incumbent upon Albert as he became president.
His was to be "a non-partisan administration of national reconciliation and unity," seeking to knit the wounds of Watergate, the Vietnam War and political divisiveness. In keeping with that approach, the Sorensen plan contemplated the unprecedented move of selecting a Republican, House Minority Leader Ford, as vice president.
A "basic posture" was drafted by Sorensen, who had been Kennedy's speechwriter, to serve as a guide for Albert's first statement as president, perhaps even as his inaugural address. Its high rhetoric is reminiscent of Kennedy:
"At no time did I seek this awesome burden, but I cannot shrink from my responsibility . . . . Our principal task now is to heal the wounds which have sorely divided and troubled our country and to renew our national spirit."
The correspondence and extensive interviews with Albert and Sorensen show that Albert, far from shrinking as some believed, was secretly prepared and willing to assume the presidency if necessary. Recalled Albert:
"I didn't even tell the leadership of the House what I was doing . . . People said, 'Oh, he's scared, he doesn't want the thing.' Well, I didn't put on a face of wanting the thing. Why should I? If I had indicated that I wanted it, it would have been a national scandal because the press then would really have clobbered us for anything we did that indicated any rush to get Nixon."
"I was ready to take the job. I wouldn't have run from it. I'd have grabbed it if the circumstances were right," Albert said. "But I seriously doubt . . . that we could have pulled that off.
"I'm not sure that if the word had got out that I was using the powers of my office as Speaker to speed up the Nixon impeachment and slow down the confirmations of Ford as vice president, that it would have worked. I think I know the sensitivity of the American public well enough to know they would have reacted."
But others encouraged him to seek the presidency at that moment and aggressively. Albert recalls then-Rep. Bella Abzug (D-N.Y.) telling him: "Get off your goddamned ass, and we can take this presidency."
Other Democrats were more subtly steering him in that direction. And Majority Leader Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), Chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.) of the Judiciary Committee and others told him of the gravity of the situation, which he says he knew only too well. Was Albert ever tempted to act in his own behalf?
"No, no, I knew better than that. My instincts were against that . . . but I thought about it all the time. I thought about the possibility, what am I going to do and how will it come out?" Albert said.
Not all of Albert's planning was contained in the Sorensen plan. Albert had selected his inner circle of advisers. They included Sorensen, Joseph A. Califano Jr., Dean Rusk, Clark M. Clifford, Bill Moyers, Tommy (the Cork) Corcoran, a Roosevelt New Dealer -- "very smart, a little bit of a fast operator, but I knew that, knew it well" -- and many others who served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
Henry A. Kissinger was to stay, at least "for a while," as secretary of state.
The fantasy was not implausible in November, 1973. By then, Nixon was tangled in the Watergate web, and even two of his attorneys had privately suggested that he resign.
The prospect of Albert, a Democrat, assuming office, while untenable to Nixon and those closest to him, grew ever more palpable for Albert himself. Albert's news conferences were getting bigger attention. He was assigned Secret Service protection. He was briefed on matters of state by the Central Intelligence Agency.
"You can't get around the fact that I was there one breath away from the White House," Albert recalled.
In a "personal and confidential" letter dated Oct. 29, 1973, Sorensen offered to undertake drafting the transition plan. It was nine days after the "Saturday Night Massacre" in which Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox was fired and Attorney General Richardson and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, resigned. Some 22 Watergate-related bills had been introduced in Congress calling for an impeachment investigation.
Sorensen wrote Albert: "I begin with the premise fully realized by you that, whether you wish it or not, you could become president at any time . . . I suggest therefore that a comprehensive 'contingency plan' be prepared, never to be discussed with others, its existence not even to be announced, such plan to lie sealed in your desk for use if needed and for destruction unopened if not -- e.g., when a new vice president is confirmed."
The plan, Sorenson wrote, "should contain recommendations for actions to be taken to unite the country, calm the world and keep the government's domestic and national security machinery functioning."
No stranger to presidential transitions, Sorensen was a top Kennedy aide in 1961 when Kennedy took office as president. He assisted in the transition to President Johnson when Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. In 1972, at the request of presidential candidate George McGovern, he prepared another transition plan that did not have to be used.
Albert took up Sorensen's offer in a tersely worded letter three days after Sorensen's letter. "It is perhaps the part of wisdom that your suggestion should be implemented," Albert wrote.
The "contingency plan," dated Nov. 8, 1973, was organized into three sections: an introduction, "Priorities for the First Day," and "Other Early Tasks and Decisions -- First Week."
The themes of the succession were to be continuity, unity and stability. Sorensen wrote that Albert must take office "without any show of uncertainty, before either the nation, its government servants or its allies lose heart, and before other centers of power in the government, the nation and the world start spinning off in different directions."