Have you listened to our latest West Wing, Best Wing episode yet? If not, go listen to it. I'll wait.
Ok, you're back! Or, you never left because you're an avid West Wing, Best Wing fan and you follow us on Twitter, so you've already seen the link to this week's episode. For the latest podcast, Molly and I reviewed "He Shall, From Time to Time" which was an episode about President Bartlet's state of the union, as well as other personal dramas that we will discuss in depth in future episodes.
One of the interesting and little understood parts of this episode for me was when Leo instructs Josh to "pick a guy," by which he means, pick someone from the line of succession to stay behind while the President is giving the State of the Union, in case, you know, the Capitol is attacked. Which means the government's plan in the even of an attack amounts to "hope the White House isn't also attacked when Congress is."
Most people know a little bit about the line of succsion. We all know that the Vice President is first in line to take over if the President dies, thanks to Article II, Section 1 of the constitution. It wasn't always a given that the VP would take over for the rest of the term though. The first time a president died in office, some people thought that the Vice President should only step in and be the president until another election could be held. But John Tyler, William Henry Harrison's vice president, insisted that he finish out Harrison's term, setting a precedent that continues to this day.
(I learned that fact from the Washington Post podcast, Presidential, which I highly recommend. I mean, not as highly as I recommend my own podcast.)
This principal was codified into law with the 25th Amendment, which explicitly states that the VP will become president if the president dies. There's other important things in the 25th Amendment, but those will play a big role in a future episode, so stay tuned!
But who takes over if the President and the VP both can't serve? That question was raised by Harry Truman in 1945, when he requested that Congress pass a law allowing the Speaker of the House to become second in line, and President of the Senate to be the third in line. Prior to this, the President of the Senate was third in line, followed by members of the Cabinet. The 1947 law, signed by none other than Harry Truman, put the President of the Senate third in line.
The line of succession hasn't changed since 1947. If the President can't serve, duties will be transferred to the Vice President, then the President of the Senate, and then finally, to Cabinet Secretaries. Secretaries are eligible in the order that their Department was created, which means the Secretary of State (one of the oldest cabinet positions, if not the oldest) is fourth in line, and the Secretary of Homeland Security (America's newest cabinet position) is traditionally 18th in the line of succession.
The most interesting thing about the line of succession, is that if any of the cabinet members are not eligible to be president under the Constitution, they are not included in the line of succession. So if any cabinet member is under 35, or not a natural born US Citizen, they wouldn't be able to assume the presidency following a horrific national tragedy.
This is bad news for Secretary Sally Jewel, the Secretary of the Interior, who would be 8th in the line of succession, if she wasn't born in England. Sorry Sally! Thanks for serving your adopted country though.
In the episode, President Bartlet picks the Secretary of Agriculture, traditionally 9th in the line of succession, to stay behind. And if any of you West Wing, Best Wing fans out there can name the current Secretary of Agriculture without turning to the Internet, I'll give you a shout out on next week's episode. But until then, enjoy our discussion of the line of succession, the history of the State of the Union, and our opinions about the NEA!