“Designated Survivor” — a new show about what happens when the U.S. Capitol is destroyed during a State of the Union address and the one man who has been chosen as the, wait for it, designated survivor becomes president — premieres tonight on ABC. (It’s getting good reviews!) Kiefer Sutherland plays the unassuming head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development who is suddenly thrust into the role of commander-in-chief. The designated survivor is, as you likely know, a real thing — aimed at ensuring continuity of our government even under the most dire of circumstances. Fewer people know that there is also a designated member of Congress and a designated staffer, a senior level aide who is also held back from the State of the Union to help the designated survivors in the event tragedy strikes. Alex Vogel, a Republican lobbyist, was once that designated staffer. He writes about that experience below.
For one very cold night in 2004, I was the designated staff survivor. While I cannot share the classified portions of my experience, the unclassified portions are worth sharing in light of the new attention the television show has focused on continuity of government issues.
On the afternoon of January 20, 2004, President George W. Bush was preparing to deliver his State of the Union speech. I was preparing to depart the Capitol with the designated Congressional survivor – Sen. Trent Lott. This was made all the more surreal and awkward because I was then the chief counsel to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist – who almost exactly a year earlier had displaced Trent Lott as Majority Leader in the firestorm that followed Lott’s birthday comments about [South Carolina Senator] Strom Thurmond.
Lott and I were met on the lawn of the Capitol by a Capitol police security detail and several Chevy Suburbans. After pleasantries, we were driven a short distance from the Capitol to a military facility where we were escorted to a flight of waiting helicopters. These particular helicopters were old – older than I am – and had pilots who were a lot younger than I am – not a combination that I look for in aviation generally. After we piled into the birds (Lott on one, me in the other), we swooped low over the river on the way to our secure location. The crew chief on the helicopter attempted to slide shut the door on the aging Huey which had been left open when we lifted off. It did not close all the way, which did not seem to bother him at all. It bothered me a great deal as 1) it was very cold (a high of 30 degrees that day and winds gusting over 30 miles per hour), and 2) I was sitting on a shredded piece of canvas several hundred feet over the ground next to an open door with no seatbelt. As we headed into the darkness, the pilots switched off all internal and external lights on the helicopter and switched over to their night vision goggles. A speechless flight into darkness was followed by a sightless (they didn’t give me night vision goggles) landing at an undisclosed location. Landing in total darkness in a helicopter is one of the more disorienting flying experiences I have ever experienced. We were met by a combination of men in suits and men in fatigues and a tone that made it clear that while this is a contingency event, it is one that has been practiced and [for which] they are prepared.
As we were ushered into our home for the next few hours, we were given a brief tour of our accommodations in the event of disaster. It was comforting to know we have enough toilet paper for a nuclear half life – even if we would have to sleep in bunk beds. We were escorted into what was basically a nice dining room – albeit a secure one with thicker than normal doors. It was explained to us that we were going to be served dinner and would be able watch the speech on a television brought in on a cart. As we settled into our dinner and wine and the television was turned on for us to watch the President’s speech, Lott looked at me and exclaimed: “Well, if this all goes wrong tonight I get to be Majority Leader again and you can be my chief of staff!” Much laughter from the assembled personnel ensued and any sense of the political tension evaporated. They must not want you to be hungry in the event of the need to rebuild after Armageddon – we were fed steak and lobster while we listened to the President’s applause lines. At the end of the speech the President departed the Capitol. We were led back to the landing zone and back on board our helicopters for the trip home.
Somewhere on our way back I noticed that every warning light on the panel of the Huey had started to blink as we rocked in the freezing wind. No one seemed to react. I asked the chief over the intercom if there was a problem. He leaned forward and banged the top row of warning lights with the palm of his hand and they all went out. Problem solved.
After we landed I was driven back to the Capitol where I promptly discovered that I had lost my phone. The next morning I called the Senate security office and explained. They dutifully called our military liaisons and searched the choppers as well as the secure location. No luck. The next day I called my own voicemail and was shocked to discover a message from a man who said he had my phone – he had found it on the green of a golf course. It had apparently fallen out of my pocket on the helicopter and bounced out of the partially open door. It survived its fall from space and had been picked up by a maintenance worker the next day. He couldn’t understand how it got there and I couldn’t explain why I had been on a golf course green in the middle of January. I simply thanked him and told him where he could mail the phone.
On State Of The Union days since then I often see helicopters lifting off near Washington and wonder who the staffer is now who gets to be Armageddon congressional chief of staff for the night.