Presidential line of succession

Today’s xkcd:

Ties are broken by whoever was closest to the surface of Europa when they were born.

I agree that the 1947 Presidential Succession Act is a disaster waiting to happen, and that at times it has waited rather impatiently.  In the case of the first vacancy to occur in the presidency while the act was in effect, it might very well have triggered a world war.

Before dawn on 23 November 1963, Secret Service Agent Gerald Blaine was assigned to guard President Lyndon Johnson, who had a few hours before been sworn in as successor to the assassinated John F. Kennedy. In his 2010 memoir, Mr Blaine admitted that he came within a fraction of a second of killing President Johnson that night. As a member of President Kennedy’s security detail, Mr Blaine had grown accustomed to that president’s scrupulous habit of notifying his guards every time he was about to go outdoors. When Mr Blaine saw a figure roaming about in the darkness on the grounds of President Johnson’s Washington-area home that night, therefore, he assumed it must be an intruder, and being as he was on highest alert he prepared to shoot the figure on sight. His finger was on the trigger of his submachine gun, about to squeeze, when a beam of light fell across the familiar features of Lyndon B. Johnson.

Had Mr Blaine squeezed that trigger, the presidency would have fallen to the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, John W. McCormack, Democrat of Massachusetts. Here is a photograph from the holdings of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, showing John McCormack in conference with President Kennedy:

mccormack jfk

In November of 1963, John McCormack was a 71 year old man with no national following, who was known on the world stage solely for his family’s longstanding and often bitter feud with the Kennedys. For example, in 1962 John McCormack’s nephew Eddie McCormack had been Edward M. Kennedy’s opponent in the Democratic primary for the US Senate from Massachusetts, a race in which Eddie McCormack had said some rather hard words about the president’s kid brother.  Had a man with that profile succeeded to the presidency as the result of two shootings within hours of each other, the first committed by a person or persons at that point still unknown, the other committed by a member of the late president’s own bodyguard, it would have been natural for the world to assume that the shootings were part of a bloody power struggle in Washington. Some people, particularly the people in charge of the Soviet Union’s foreign policy, would have been required to take substantive action based on that assumption. Because the early 1960s were the most perilous phase of the Cold War, it would have been dereliction of duty for the leaders in the Kremlin to have regarded them as anything else.

The USA had gone through many peaceful transfers of power by 1963. Foreign observers, operating under the assumption that a violent coup was in place, would therefore have to make the further assumption that the coup-makers were acting from desperation. If the USA were a country where groups routinely succeeded each other in the seats of power by means of assassination, the motive might have been relatively humdrum. Since the USA was in fact at the opposite pole, where a bloody power struggle was a radical departure from the norm, the motive must itself have been radical.

What could that motive have been? Starting in the early 1950s, a powerful faction within the US military, led by Air Force General Curtis LeMay, had been advocating a massive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union, a preemptive strike known to its advocates as the “Sunday Punch.”  General LeMay’s idea was widely enough known to the Washington press corps that when he emerged as a candidate for vice president a few years later, they were ready with questions about it, questions which he answered in a rather terrifying way. Surely Soviet intelligence must have been aware in 1963 that there was a faction in the Pentagon that had long been making this proposal, and that its leaders included Curtis Lemay, who at that time was the Air Force Chief of Staff. If a group were so hardened to violence as to be ready to launch a nuclear first strike against the USSR, killing hundreds of millions of people, perhaps that same group would reconcile itself to adding two more murders to their scheme. Seeing John McCormack emerging from the bloodstained chaos, the Soviets might well have concluded that he was a stooge of the victorious Lemay faction, and that their only chance of survival lay in hitting the US and its nuclear arsenal with all the forces they could muster.

Now, rerun the scenario without the 1947 act. Before that law was passed, the 1886 Presidential Succession Act had placed the Secretary of State second in line of succession behind the Vice President. Under no circumstances would it have been easy to believe that the shooting deaths of two presidents within 24 hours had resulted from the actions of a lone gunman and a panicked security man, but at least with the advent of President Dean Rusk the prospect of world war would not have been greatly heightened. Though he was not a particular favorite of President Kennedy’s, Secretary of State Rusk was an appointee of his, had represented his administration faithfully, and had been a familiar figure in world capitals since the early months of the Second World War. Though the Kremlin would still have assumed that the deaths of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson were part of a violent power struggle, Rusk’s ascension would have been evidence that the faction loyal to President Kennedy had won that struggle and prevented an immediate nuclear attack on the USSR. Certainly it would have been rational for the Soviets to approach a Rusk administration cautiously and to refrain from any irrevocable actions.

In the other situation when the provisions of the 1947 act might have come into effect, the stakes were less desperate, but still considerable.  That was in 1973, when Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced to resign after he was caught taking bribes. In an unrelated scandal coming to light at the same time, the so-called “Watergate” affair, President Richard Nixon was facing the ever-increasing likelihood of removal from office for his own criminal exploits. Congress was reluctant to act against President Nixon for many reasons, not least that removing him while the Vice Presidency was vacant would have meant that after an election in which over 60% of the people had voted for a Republican president, the 1947 act would then have elevated a Democratic Speaker of the House to the presidency. Indeed, the selection of Congressman Gerald R. Ford to replace Agnew paid a sort of homage to the 1947 act, since Ford was the man the Republicans would have installed as Speaker had they held the majority in the House of Representatives.

As for Randall Munroe’s suggestions in the comic above, slots 1-6 look pretty good to me.  I would suggest that the Secretary of the Treasury should be on the list, no lower than right behind the Secretary of State. The Secretary of the Treasury is the only official who is a first-rank player in both domestic policy and foreign policy, and is certainly as familiar to policymakers around the world as is any appointed official other than the Secretary of State.

Number 7, “Five people who do not live in Washington, DC, nominated at the start of the President’s term and confirmed by the Senate” sounds logical, though I’d need some specifics before I endorsed the idea. Would these be people who already hold office under the federal government? If not, how would they be paid, how would they be kept informed of the things a president ought to know, and how would they be kept from involving themselves in matters with which a president ought to have nothing to do?

Number 8, Tom Hanks. Well, I remember Bosom Buddies as fondly as the next person (assuming that the next person didn’t like the show either,) but I don’t think he’s quite the person I’d like to see taking charge in a crisis so extreme that all those senior officials had died or otherwise become unavailable. I used to mistake Tom Hanks for Tim Robbins, and Tim Robbins used to be partnered with Susan Sarandon. So I’d suggest putting Susan Sarandon in that spot.

Number 9, “State governors in descending order of population at the last census,” is no good. One of the problems of the 1947 Act is that many legal experts believe that the constitutional separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches may well preclude members of Congress, such as the Speaker of the House and the President pro tempore of the Senate, from being listed in the line of succession. No less important to the constitutional order than the separation of powers between the branches of the federal government is the division of powers between the federal government and the states. Including governors would violate this principle as surely as including members of Congress violates the other.  Moreover, sorting them by the population of their states would revive a contention between large states and small ones, a contention which the Constitution did so much to resolve.

Number 10, “Anyone who won an Oscar for playing a governor,” might encourage Hollywood to make prestige movies about state government.  That’s a cause I can get behind, so I’ll endorse that.

Number 11, “Anyone who won a Governor’s Award for playing someone named Oscar,” will only encourage remakes of The Odd Couple, an intolerable prospect.

Number 12, “Kate McKinnon, if available.” I assume that means that Mr Munroe hopes that, in the dark day when the country finds itself going so far down the line of succession, Ms McKinnon would stop trying to be funny. I can think of any number of comedians whose efforts are far more tedious than hers, so I would put them ahead of her.

Number 13, the Billboard Hot 100 artists. Sure, why not? Considering the current president’s show-biz background, it’s probably just a matter of time before that population starts to dominate the presidential sweepstakes on its own.

Number 14, US astronauts, no. I’ve always loved astronauts, but they are strongly biased against sending robot probes into space to do actual science. We don’t need more studies about the damage gravity deprivation does to the human body, but we do need multiple rovers on the Moon and other instruments that can answer serious questions in astronomy and planetary science.

Number 15, Serena Williams, and Number 16, champions of the biggest ticket team sports. That’s a juicy idea…

Number 17, Bill Pullman and his descendants. That would require a legal method for distinguishing between Bill Pullman and Bill Paxton. Since descendants are involved, Bill Paxton’s death does nothing to surmount this impossible challenge.

Number 18, the entire line of succession to the British throne. Judging by the percentage of the US population that swoons when British royals are in the news, this might be a popular idea. And it does make since that there should be a sense of kinship there, since many Americans are proud to trace their lineage back to hardworking families of German immigrants who made good.

Number 19, the current champion of the Nathan’s hot-dog eating contest. This one should rank much higher, behind the Secretary of the Treasury and ahead of the Secretary of Defense.

Number 20, “All other US citizens, chosen by a 29 round single elimination jousting tournament,” would leave the winner free of most of the usual problems of political leadership, since virtually all of the surviving population would be severely incapacitated by its wounds. After issuing urgent appeals to the other countries of the world to send medical assistance, s/he would have plenty of time to work on his or her hot-dog eating skills.

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