It’s the unthinkable doomsday scenario: a catastrophic attack on U.S. soil that wipes out the president, Congress and the upper levels of government, and leaves behind the “designated survivor” to run the country.
It’s the stuff of dark thrillers, but the writers of ABC’s most talked-about new show, “Designated Survivor,” are working off real-life protocols.
The series marks a return to television for Kiefer Sutherland, playing a meek, low-level cabinet secretary who is thrust, fully unprepared, into the presidency.
Though firmly in the realm of make-believe, the scenario is based on a very real, extremely classified safeguard known as “the continuity of government plan.” ABC News consultant Dick Clarke ran the program for nearly a decade and he’s the only official to ever deploy it in a crisis.
“The problem that the continuity of government plan tries to solve is something called decapitation: if an enemy a foreign nation or a terrorist group tries to decapitate the leadership of the U.S. government by killing all of the people in the line of succession,” Clarke said.
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When Clarke activated the continuity of government system during the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, President George W. Bush was in the air on Air Force One, Vice President Dick Cheney was rushed to an underground bunker and then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert was asked to leave Washington, D.C.
“We landed a helicopter on the grounds of the Capitol, got the speaker to the helicopter and flew him out of Washington because we didn't know at that point whether or not the White House or the Capitol were going to be hit by hijacked airplanes,” Clarke said.
The plan is a remnant of the Cold War, but each year, a cabinet member is still asked to skip the State of the Union address.
“They are then put in a secure location with a support staff before the State of the Union begins and they're brought back only the next morning,” Clarke said.
Former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales once served as the real-life designated survivor during President Bush’s 2007 State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress.
"My FBI detail drove me to Andrews Air Force Base," Gonzales said. “There were a group of individuals there from various departments and agencies all carrying these binders black binders of protocols and classified procedures. And their job was to advise me in the event that I assume the presidency.
"And then I settled in front of a large monitor and watched President Bush give his State of the Union,” he continued. “It suddenly hit me in the middle of that speech somewhere. ‘Oh my gosh.’ I looked around the airplane and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh.’”
Gonzales talks about his experience in his new book, “True Faith and Allegiance.” He has been a part of some significant moments in Bush’s presidency, advising him through two wars, and Gonzales was on the Oval Office porch on the evening on 9/11 when Bush came home, but the night he was a designated survivor has also stayed with him.
“It really kind of hit me sitting on that airplane,” he said. “I looked around the plane and at those that were with me and I wondered, 'Would we be up to governing a wounded nation?'”
The “White House is going down” is a familiar Hollywood plotline, whether it's rogue foreign terror cells, two-timing double agents or tentacle-covered alien invaders in “Independence Day.”
ABC’s “Designated Survivor” ponders how an “average Joe” might react to suddenly becoming commander-in-chief. Kiefer Sutherland’s character Tom Kirkman spends a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a good president and a good leader.
“I think maybe you have to try and not be a good president and you have to try and be a good person,” Sutherland said.
Sutherland added that it’s impossible not to think about the current political climate. “And I think that certainly in the context of our show we have an opportunity to overcome the divide that seems to have taken hold in America,” he said.
Sutherland, who is best known for playing counter-terrorism agent Jack Bauer for almost a decade on the hit show “24,” said his character on “Designated Survivor” is nothing like Bauer.
“Not by a long shot,” he said. “I'm looking around here behind me and all of these weapons. My character wouldn't know how to hold that, let alone fire it. And Jack Bauer was very proficient in that. But the one thing that they do have in common is this commitment to serve publicly.”
Sutherland has politics in his blood. His grandfather was the leader of Canada's New Democratic Party as the premier of Saskatchewan for 16 years and then the federal leader of the New Democratic Party. But, Sutherland said, "I am keenly aware that I am an actor and I'm playing a part."
“Designated Survivor” goes to great lengths to keep things realistic. Veteran actor Kal Penn, everyone's favorite stoner from "Harold and Kumar," plays the president’s speechwriter and brings with him real-life White House experience. He famously left Hollywood to serve in the Office of Public Engagement in the Obama administration and offers guidance on-set.
“I think it's just little things,” he said. “How many people would be in a particular office, would somebody actually run into this person or are we taking a creative license with it? So it's really kind of just questions that you would ask of anybody who's familiar with a particular world.”
The show even brought in Rich Klein, a political consultant who was a speechwriter for two senators and four cabinet secretaries, and who said he worked on “a couple of State of the Union addresses.” Klein said the Oval Office on “Designated Survivor” is “remarkably” similar to the real thing.
“The fact that in the in the White House men's room there's one of those old style mechanical shoe buffers with a red and a black brush. We have that,” Klein added. “I mean we've gotten down to some really fine detail.”