U.S. Presidential Line of Succession Plot Device
October 10, 2006 7:07 AM   Subscribe

I have decided to participate in NaNoWriMo, but I need help with a plot point involving the U.S. presidential order of succession.

Okay, Order of Succession is going to be a Tom Clancy-ish political thriller using characters that are thinly disguised members of the current administration. My idea is to have my fictionilized version of Bush die, and have Dick Cheney and Hastert (and however many others are neccessary) decide that they will not be able to effectively govern because they are so unpopular, so they (somehow) refuse the presidency in favor of a popular patsy that they think that they can govern through, but as they decline the presidency somehow, the patsy becomes unavailable to serve, and the book's hero becomes president, and demands Dick, Condi, Rumsfeld, etc.'s resignations immediately, and they decide to try to assasinate the hero president rather than resign. The action of the book is the hero president trapped in the oval office (closed off because of a made-up terrorist threat) trying to escape, or be rescued by his former squadron of Iraq-vets who are in the Whitehouse for a photo-op. Silly, I know, but I think it will be cool.

However, the U.S. presidential line of succession is complicated, and I don't feel like figuring out how to make this happen in a somewhat believable manner. It doesn't have to be perfect, because I don't think that anyone will actually ever read Order of Succession, but I would prefer if the set up of my novel was not completely unbelievable (no cracks about how the whole idea for the book is completely unbelievable).

Just to recap: Bush dies, those next in line for the presidency somehow refuse it, thinking that the evil popular patsy will become president, but the person who they think will get it next is somehow unavailable, and the recently appointed or elected Iraq war-vet hero of my novel becomes president. So, any ideas how I can make this happen?
posted by ND¢ to Law & Government (14 answers total)
Cheney gets sworn in as President, appoints patsy as VP, then Cheney steps down, and Patsy is President.
posted by willnot at 7:36 AM on October 10, 2006

I am not a constitutional or political scholar. If the patsy accepts and becomes president, then I'm pretty sure Cheney et all would still be in the line of succession, and if the patsy dies or whatever, would be offered the chance again.

But if the patsy is about to accept, and then it comes out that he's ineligible in some was that was undetected before, or is murdered right before he accepts or before it comes to him or something the presidency would fall on the next in line after him.

So I'd make the patsy the ever-popular Secretary of Education and the hero the Secretary of Veteran Affairs, which fits perfectly with your plot point: "rescued by his former squadron of Iraq-vets who are in the Whitehouse for a photo-op."

On preview, what willnot said is much more likely to happen. Then the patsy would have to somehow choose the hero to be HIS VP, against the wishes of Cheney, et al?

I still like the Secretary of Veteran Affairs angle.
posted by muddgirl at 7:40 AM on October 10, 2006

Oh, but you don't want Patsy to be President. You want somebody else. Maybe Patsy appoints somebody other than Cheney as VP, and then Patsy dies making war vet the new President.

Although more likely, having the Patsy have a change of heart once he's in office and refusing to be ruled by his masters makes more sense and allows for some internal struggle and character growth.

Might be better if his son was the Iraq hero though. He supported the war, but then he saw what it did to his kid. Yadda, Yadda.
posted by willnot at 7:40 AM on October 10, 2006

OK, so your version of the pres should be killed in some manner that also kills one of his cabinet members. The masterminds get everyone higher than that position to agree to decline the presidency and nominate a patsy to fill the cabinet opening.

Turns out that, after they have all "officially" declined, it is discovered that this patsy is not a naturally-born citizen, and is ineligible. Maybe his mother always told him that he was born here, but he was actually not, or something. Your hero occupies the next-in-line cabinet position.

Not sure it is even possible to decline, but whatever; it sounds plausible.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:46 AM on October 10, 2006

I like the Secretary of Vet Affairs.

Ooh, better idea than the citizenship thing -- make it a birthdate discrepancy so the patsy is not actually 35 years old yet. Perhaps the patsy is a niece of the killed president whose mother lied about the patsy's age since she (the patsy) was 3 or 4 to make herself (the mother) seem younger?
posted by Rock Steady at 7:51 AM on October 10, 2006

Response by poster: I like your ideas Rock Steady. Bush's nephew is the one that they choose to be the patsy, but he can't do it. I also like the Secretary of Veteran's Affairs idea, but he is the 15th in line for the presidency, so that will be a lot of people to decline the presidency in order to get to him. Also, it is the declining that I am having trouble with. How can Cheney and Hastert and the rest decline to become president, without becoming president and resigning?
posted by ND¢ at 7:58 AM on October 10, 2006

Don't forget to make use of the NanoWriMo forums, too.
posted by dreamsign at 8:03 AM on October 10, 2006

Best answer: OK, I'm way too into this.

There appears to be no provision for declining the presidency. But if you make it up, and make it seem official, I think it could be plausible. Say that the ability to decline was added in after 1973, when a Democrat became first in line to succeed Nixon during the Watergate stuff. He said that he would only want to be Acting President until a new Veep could be appointed. But add that once you decline, you are officially forever out of the Order of Succession.

If you don't think Cheney could make any member of the Cabinet do exactly what he wants at any time, well, good for you.

Possible title: Designated Survivor
posted by Rock Steady at 8:06 AM on October 10, 2006

It looks like Acting Officers cannot become president until they are confirmed by the senate. You could place the events right after the 2004 presidential election, or right after a huge political shake up designed to restore public faith in the administration. The people in line for succession have been nominated and are acting in their roles, but due to bad blood in the senate (the opposition party has just taken control in the aforementioned election?) they haven't been confirmed yet.

Big Plot Event happens, a new president is needed, but very few people have been confirmed, you move through the list very quickly. In a random stroke of luck the senate did confirm the Veteran Affairs guy, as a way to show support for the troops while opposing the war, thus he becomes the only cabinet member eligible to become president. !!!111!!!!ONE!!!
posted by Science! at 8:08 AM on October 10, 2006

...Then you only have to deal with the elected officials in line and maybe a few high level people who were confirmed out of need. Sec. of State etc. Bonus side story/twist you've got a ton of people and their supporters who believe they should be president and due to political history carry a lot of pull with different factions in the country.
posted by Science! at 8:13 AM on October 10, 2006

I did a bunch of research on age requirements for office a few years ago, and I am positive that at least one early (vice?) president was elected under the age of 35. I really wish i had more time to look it up but the 'age requirement' was considered flexible under the right circumstances-- but now adays the losing party would raise a huge stink about it. But I'd say stick with the citizenship one, that one is more interesting anyways.
posted by ZackTM at 8:34 AM on October 10, 2006

Response by poster: Wow. It looks as if my novel will be in good company. I just found this.
posted by ND¢ at 8:59 AM on October 10, 2006

Best answer: The masterminds get everyone higher than that position to agree to decline the presidency and nominate a patsy to fill the cabinet opening.

If there's no president, then there's no one who's eligible to nominate cabinet secretaries.

But I agree with those who point out that there's currently no provision to decline the presidency. If Bush dies, Cheney becomes president, period. He can resign after becoming president, but he can't decline and never become president at all. Of course, as has already been pointed out, you could just make up a fictional provision for declining the presidency.

Another possibility might be to involve the Speaker of the House. Let's say after the midterm elections, and after the new Congress takes office (Jan. 3, 2007), the Republicans hold a 1-seat majority in the house. Evil patsy becomes speaker of the house. Bush dies, Cheney becomes president and resigns, intending to make evil patsy president. But then it's discovered due to fraud or whatever that one of the house races was incorrectly decided--it was actually the Democrat, not the Republican, who won the seat, giving the Democrats a 1-seat majority. What would actually happen then is pure speculation, as there's no precedent for it, and no clear statement in law, AFAIK, as to what happens if the House vote for speaker is invalid due to an incorrectly seated Representative, let alone if that invalidly-elected speaker becomes president. But that just means you can make up whatever you want. An added advantage of this is that you don't have to go very far down in the line of succession for this one.

I just noticed something in the Wikipedia article linked above that might be fodder, if you want to go for a more conspiracy-theory angle. Traditionally, the order of succession among cabinet members has been the order in which the departments were created. But the bill passed by the Senate and being considered by the House would insert the Secretary of Homeland Security roughly into the middle of the order, rather than at the end, as would be traditional. Why? Perhaps there's some nefarious reason this is being done?
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:45 PM on October 10, 2006

Re DevilAd idea - "...then it's discovered due to fraud or whatever that one of the house races was incorrectly decided..." this plot event would have to occur BEFORE the Pres etc start dying as the order of succession would fall to whoever is in the sitting office at the moment the POTUS office needs filling. If the Speaker was a replublican at the moment the Pres or Acting Pres died, he'd be sworn in and remain so regardless of the eventual discovery of fraud/election issue to overturn the majority.

You could follow current events; the Iraq/Foley/Economy etc issues give the Dems a slim majority. The Speaker position is too important to give to a newcomer so that goes to an old warhorse who has been there for 40 years and is entrenched and can make deals. But the President pro tem of the senate while on paper is the second highest position in the senate it really is just a powerless ceremony position tossed to the oldest crank as an honor. Here you could have a new Dem senator elected in a swing state where he was a fill in candidate after the nominee died and the Dem majority leadership throws this position at him to curry favor on some very important issue he has said he is against (instead of making him Whip and they cant give him a prominate committee since they are already promised out.) He takes it, and some funding earmarks. Then one day the Speaker dies in a car crash, Cheney has a stroke - or is shot in the head by a friend duck hunting! - and the next day the Pres dies. Or the death of the Speaker is an Evil conspiracy and the VP and Pres are accidents, Bam, Pres Pro tem is sworn in as the line of succession is direct from POTUS to him. In one day there would not be time to vote a new Speaker or appoint a new VP. Just tossing out there. Have fun!
posted by Kensational at 5:14 PM on October 10, 2006

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