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For State of the Union address 'survivors,' it's been pizza and day trips

By Al Kamen
The selection process for a "designated survivor" -- the Cabinet official who stays away from the State of the Union speech in the event of an attack wiping out the government -- is somewhat opaque.

In recent years it's been handled, apparently on a random basis, by the White House chief of staff's office. Sometimes the decision is made up to a week in advance. Sometimes, we're told -- we can't say in which administration -- "everyone forgot" until not long before the speech itself.

One wag speculated that Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan was the pick last night because he didn't need to be there, since HUD was not front and center in the president's speech. His office, the next day, declined to say even in general terms where he was.

In the past, the "survivor" sometimes stayed in town -- former Health and Human Services secretary Donna Shalala just hung out in the White House and had pizza in 1996. But officials were, we're told, encouraged to get a ways out of town.

But it was best not to go too far. Former Agriculture secretary Dan Glickman headed up to New York in 1997 for dinner with his daughter in Manhattan. He flew on a small Air Force jet with a security detail, the "suitcase," and a doctor, he recalled Thursday. Upon landing, he was driven in a small motorcade to his daughter's apartment building.

The security detail stayed downstairs while Glickman watched the speech. As soon as it was over, though, they called up and told him, "The mission is terminated."

They took off and left Glickman and his daughter, unable to hail a cab, to walk 12 blocks to dinner in the pouring rain.

"Ah, the fleeting limits of power," he observed.

But had disaster struck, Donovan wouldn't have been president anyway. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was in London, would have become president, since she outranks him.

By Web Politics Editor  |  January 28, 2010; 6:33 PM ET
Categories:  44 The Obama Presidency , In the Loop  
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