The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

ABC’s ‘Designated Survivor’ dramatizes a real-life governmental gig

Kiefer Sutherland plays the title character in ABC’s “Designated Survivor.” (Ben Mark Holzberg/ABC)
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ABC’s upcoming series, “Designated Survivor,” follows the fail-proof formula for a Washington-set drama: Take a routine government function and spin it into must-watch action by adding Hollywood-y embellishments and a way-too-good-looking-for-the-federal-workforce cast.

The premise of “Designated Survivor” hangs on the annual tradition of having one member of the Cabinet sit out the president’s State of the Union speech at the Capitol building, an event that draws Congress, members of the Supreme Court, and most of those in the line of presidential succession. Kiefer Sutherland plays a relatively obscure Housing and Urban Development secretary thrust into the role of president when the Capitol blows up, in fiery cinematic fashion, of course.

So how close does the TV version come to getting the real-life gig right? According to the trailer, pre-explosion, Sutherland’s character is chilling in jeans and sweatshirt, chomping on popcorn and chatting with his daughter by phone while watching the president’s speech on TV.

That sounds like the low-key gig several secretaries have described. Former Health and Human Services secretary Donna Shalala has recounted ordering pizza with her staff. Former Agriculture secretary Dan Glickman holed up at his daughter’s Manhattan apartment.

Bill Richardson, who was the designated survivor in 2000 when he was Energy secretary under then-President Bill Clinton, says he spent the evening at a friend’s home in a small town on the eastern shore of Maryland watching the State of the Union address. The large security detail, he says, caused a stir in the quiet hamlet.

In the trailer for the TV show, the designated survivor appears to be in some kind of government facility in Washington. Pre-9/11, designated survivors picked their locales (Richardson, for example, said the Secret Service told him he would only have to remain within a certain radius of Washington). But since the 2001 terrorist attacks, the designated survivor is kept closer to the White House and under even tighter security at “undisclosed locations.”

For Richardson, one hardship was not getting to attend the president’s address in person. “I got a call from John Podesta, who was Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, and he said, ‘you’re not going to the State of the Union,’ and I thought I had done something wrong,” he remembers. “I actually really enjoyed being in the chamber for the speech.”

Despite the veneer of normalcy, those who’ve taken on the role recognize the gravity of the responsibility. “You do realize the enormity of the situation, even though the likelihood of anything happening is so small,” Richardson says.

So did former Interior secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who was the designated survivor in 2008. “You realize the only reason you’re there is if an absolute calamity were to occur,” says Kempthorne, who now heads the American Council of Life Insurers.

And those who’ve held the title of “designated survivor” say they were relieved to give it up. “When it was over,” Richardson says. “I had a glass of wine.”