In January 2000, Bill Richardson was just a heartbeat away from becoming the president of the United States. No, the recently resigned Democratic presidential candidate didn't almost invent a time machine to transport himself into a Turtledove-esque alternate-history America.
Richardson, who was then the U.S. secretary of energy, was the so-called designated survivor for Bill Clinton's final State of the Union address. That means he was one localized disaster away from ascending to the post of leader of the free world.
The designated survivor is a member of the U.S. Cabinet who remains intentionally absent from functions that require the complete attendance of the remainder of the Cabinet, the president, the vice president, the president pro tempore of the Senate, and the speaker of the House of Representatives. This group represents the complete line of presidential succession as laid out in the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well as applicable U.S. law.
Instituted during the Cold War, the designated survivor security measure ensures at least one member of the line of succession would survive an attack in the event that the remainder of the leadership perishes. Had such an attack occurred during the 2000 State of the Union, Bill Richardson would have become president then, rather than resigning his campaign for president just recently.
The government chooses designated survivors for every State of the Union address, for all joint sessions of the U.S. Congress, and for presidential inaugurations. Interestingly, the 25th Amendment makes no mention of the Cabinet in its stipulations for the line of succession, merely that the U.S. Congress may stipulate by law the line past the president, vice president, speaker, and Senate president.
The inclusion of the Cabinet is an artifact of the Presidential Succession Act of 1947. This legislation dictated that the members of the Cabinet would succeed to the presidency in the same order as the creation of the respective executive departments (with a few specific exceptions).
Since 1947, seven such Cabinet positions have been created. In that time, only one Cabinet position — and thus only one potential presidential successor — has been eliminated.
WHAT IS THE ONLY POST THAT HAS BEEN PERMANENTLY REMOVED FROM THE U.S. PRESIDENTIAL LINE OF SUCCESSION?Get the answer.
Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can also follow him on his personal blog.