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What would President Kiefer Sutherland do? 2016.09.28

By RICH FOLEY

A local business owner recently told me he couldn’t wait to see my take on this year’s presidential election. That’s a subject almost guaranteed to create an uproar, no matter how I handle it. I have to admit, I’m amazed that, with all the possibilities available, we don’t have a better field to choose from than what we ended up with. That is, until Kiefer Sutherland came into the picture.

Kiefer Sutherland? Those of you who didn’t see the premiere episode of “Designated Survivor,” a new television series that debuted last week, won’t have any idea what I’m talking about. Permit me to explain.

The premise of the series revolves around the fact that each year, when it’s time for the president to make his (or possibly her, depending on election results) State of the Union address, one cabinet member is chosen not to attend. As a precaution against some sort of disaster wiping out our executive and legislative branches, one cabinet officer is hidden away in order to take over as President following a calamity.

In the series, Sutherland, who plays the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, is picked as the “designated survivor” and has to take the oath of office as President when an explosion occurs during the address, apparently killing everyone in the Capitol building.

There’s actually a historical precedent for an attack on everyone at the highest level of our government. On the night in 1865 when President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, several other top officials were also targets. An attempt on Secretary of State William Seward’s life was thwarted with Seward surviving serious injuries.

 The person chosen to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson lost his nerve and didn’t carry out his assignment, sparing Johnson and enabling him to succeed the slain Lincoln. Recently victorious Union Army general Ulysses S. Grant turned down an invitation to attend the theater with Lincoln, keeping John Wilkes Booth from having a chance to kill him as well as Lincoln and allowing Grant to eventually become President himself. It’s not sure how many others might have been targets.

Here’s where my first question comes up. If someone or some group had the ability to concoct a plan to wipe out everyone in the Capitol building, wouldn’t it seem likely that they’d also be capable of tracking the members of the cabinet and killing whoever didn’t go to the State of the Union address?

The plot of the series raises an either bigger question. In a flashback scene, we learn that on the morning of the attack on the Capitol, Sutherland’s character was asked to resign by the President whose seat he now occupies. Several White House staffers who were aware of that request but not present at the attack now want Sutherland to resign the office that tragedy thrust upon him.

So the question is, if the slain president was already planning to get rid of Sutherland’s character, why did he still allow him to be the designated survivor? If he was no longer wanted as a cabinet member, why put him in the position to possibly become president?

Sure, the chances of such an attack are extremely remote, but if the series expects us to believe it could happen, then why wouldn’t the television President choose someone he felt qualified to succeed him to be his designated survivor? Even one other mythical president was smart enough to do that.

I remember a years-ago episode of “The West Wing” when the president, then portrayed by Martin Sheen, had the designated cabinet secretary stop by the White House on the day of the State of the Union address. Sheen’s character questioned him on what he would do if everyone was indeed wiped out at that evening’s speech. 

Pleased with the answers he received, Sheen’s president wished the secretary well and went on with his day. Those unhappy staffers on the new series should have requested that a different “survivor” be chosen.

 When “The West Wing” reached the end of Sheen’s second term, Jimmy Smits was elected as the new president. Unfortunately, the series was cancelled before we got a chance to see President Smits in action. Perhaps Kiefer Sutherland will have better luck. If he does well in his new role, maybe I’ll vote for him for real.