Presidential Succession & Chain Of Command

I just finished reading Stephen Barnes’ terrorism/thriller Directive 51. A review will be forthcoming on the OBR shortly, so keep an eye out for it. It’s a big book and it’s about a lot of things, but at its heart it’s about a dispute over how to solve the problem of presidential succession after most of the government has been wiped out. The title comes from a Bush-era Executive Order that set down the manner in which the continuity of the Republic would have been maintained. At the time all of the Bush-Bashers (of which I am proud to say, I am one, but not necessarily on this issue) said that it was Evil George’s attempt at establishing a dictatorship. It’s really nothing of the sort, and many presidents before him had similar orders on the books.

What it does is establish a Chairman that would use his best efforts to make sure that the Constitutional provisions on Executive Succession would be adhered to and in the swiftest and safest manner possible. Actually, lots of Bush’s order was (and still is) secret, so it may have gone farther – we’ll just never know, at least during our lifetimes.

In Barnes’ book there are two succession events. In the first the President declared himself incompetent to continue the office, the VP died a few weeks prior, and the Speaker of the House was a foreign-born immigrant, and was thus unable to hold the office. It went to the interim President Pro Tem of the Senate, a crotchety old bastard of a power-grabber, who attempted a coup prior to the election that followed in the plot.

After that was all squared away, the President elect and the entire succession pool – save for one Cabinet level Secretary – were wiped out in a fusion bomb attack. The Chairman, worried over what could happen if he again appointed someone who was incompetent, was reluctant to appoint the surviving Secretary because that person did not believe that the United States was at war; he thought the attack was automated, and the its designers were long dead and their capacity to make more war dead. A civil war of sorts followed, but before being resolved the book – the first of a trilogy – ended.

Presidential succession in the United States is governed by the U.S. Constitution, Article II, Section 1, which states only that the Vice President shall serve in the office when the President is unable to do so. A number of legislative Acts have been passed since then which clarify the order of succession. The most recent act, the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, states the order of succession that most of us are at least passably familiar with. That particular Act is a Cold-War era body of law – probably passed in light of the potential of large scale destruction brought on by nuclear capability – that still has much relevance today.

We shall likely never find out the true scope of any of the Presidential Directives that have to do with succession, because making them public documents would make whomever is the Chairman a target during an attack. But whatever the duties of that person, you can rest assured that the Constitution and the current Act will trump in the event of a conflict.

Unless there’s a coup. Knock on wood.

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