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Is 'designated survivor' real? Kiefer Sutherland's ABC show takes premise from government fail-safe

Posted: 5:53 PM, Sep 20, 2016
Updated: 2016-09-21 17:49:06-04

It might sound crazy, but the plot of ABC's new show, Designated Survivor, could really happen

Watch the premiere TONIGHT at 9 p.m. on ABC15!

Kiefer Sutherland, who plays low-level cabinet member Tom Kirkman, suddenly becomes President of the United States, after an explosive attack disrupts the State of the Union address.

It is good TV drama (from the trailer, we're hooked already) -- but some may wonder if the premise is plausible. 

Does the U.S. government actually appoint a "designated survivor"? They sure do.

Below are some more things you may want to know before the show's premiere.

1) What is the designated survivor?

The "designated survivor" refers to an official -- typically a low-level cabinet member, like Sutherland's character -- who would become president and maintain control of the United States' government should some apocalyptic scenario wipe out every other elected official.

Each year, the president delivers his State of the Union address to Congress. And each year, one representative is intentionally absent. They are the designated survivor.

2) When did this start?

Officially, records of which cabinet member was absent from the State of the Union did not start until 1984. However, according to official U.S. Senate historical records , the practice may have begun as early as the 1960s, perhaps even earlier.

3) Where does the designated survivor go during the State of the Union?

According to a 2015 ABC News article , the designated survivor is given “presidential-level security” and taken to a secret location, where he or she watches the State of the Union address.

Jim Nicholson, who served as the Secretary of Veterans Affairs from 2005 to 2007, and was the designated survivor in 2006, told ABC, “there’s a lot of reality in this.”

4) Being the designated survivor takes practice.

According to Nicholson’s interview with ABC News , being the designated survivor is no small responsibility.

He said he found out “several days” ahead of the State of the Union address. Then, he had “nuanced conversations about if this did happen what would be the first things you should do," according to that interview.

One of those tasks would be to address the nation. That address was practiced, rehearsed, and followed by other drills, Nicholson told ABC News. You can hear more of Nicholson’s interview here .

5) Who have been designated survivors?

Records were not released publicly until 1984. Since then, there have been 33 designated survivors.

According to Senate historical documents available online , they are as follows:

1.       January 12, 2016 Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson

2.       January 20, 2015 Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx

3.       January 28, 2014 Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz

4.       February 12, 2013 Secretary of Energy Steven Chu

5.       January 24, 2012 Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack

6.       January 25, 2011 Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar

7.       January 28, 2010 Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan

8.       February 24, 2009** Attorney General Eric Holder

9.       January 28, 2008 Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne

10.   January 23, 2007 Attorney General Alberto Gonzales

11.   January 31, 2006 Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson

12.   February 2, 2005 Secretary of Commerce Donald Evans

13.   January 20, 2004 Secretary of Commerce Donald Evans

14.   January 28, 2003 Attorney General John Ashcroft

15.   January 29, 2002 Interior Secretary Gale Norton

16.   February 27, 2001** Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi

17.   January 27, 2000 Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson

18.   January 19, 1999 Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Andrew W. Cuomo

19.   January 27, 1998 Commerce Secretary Bill Daley

20.   February 4, 1997 Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman

21.   January 30, 1996 Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala

22.   January 24, 1995 Transportation Secretary Federico Pena

23.   January 25, 1994 Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy

24.   February 17, 1993** Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt

25.   January 28, 1992 Secretary of Agriculture Ed Madigan

26.   January 29, 1991 Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan

27.   January 31, 1990 Veterans Affairs Secretary Edward J. Derwinski

28.   February 9, 1989** Unknown

29.   January 25, 1988 Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel

30.   January 27, 1987 Agriculture Secretary Richard Lyng

31.   February 4, 1986 Secretary of Agriculture John Block

32.   February 6, 1985 Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige

33.   January 25, 1984 Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Samuel R. Pierce Jr.

(Asterisks denote an address before Congress, but address was not the official "State of Union." Still, President followed tradition to name a designated survivor in these instances.)