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Thursday, August 23, 2012

Presidential succession on TV

Presidential succession is a treasure trove for television plots. The West Wing featured six different storylines involving selection and succession of the president or vice president (some for drama, some necessitated by the untimely death of actor John Spencer).

This summer, we have been watching Political Animals, a cable mini-series depicting a thinly veiled Hillary Clinton (played wonderfully by Sigourney Weaver), divorced from a thinly veiled Bill Clinton, and working as Secretary of State for the man who beat her in the primary (who is not remotely reflective of Barack Obama). In Sunday's season finale, the Twenty-fifth Amendment returned as guest star.

Spoilers after the jump.

Air Force One crashes into the ocean off the coast of France and a rescue/recovery mission is under way; some bodies have been recovered, but not the President. The Vice President (who is a total sleaze and the political villain of the show) summons the Chief Justice to the Oval Office to administer the oath of office, which would make him the President. When told of this plan the Secretary of State races to find all the cabinet members and get them to sign a letter under § 4 of the Amendment, declaring the president unable to discharge his duties. The VP and the Secretary of State then have a showdown conversation in the Oval Office, in which she stresses the constitutional crisis that would arise if it turns out the president survived the plane crash and there were two presidents. The VP backs down and signs the letter (§ 4 requires the VP and a majority of the cabinet); the Secretary congratulates him on now being the acting president (but not the President) and the VP/AP shoots her an angry glare.

It was certainly done in a melodramatic fashion that was not poltically realistic. In reality, the Chief never would have even shown up at the White House or been prepared to administer the oath absent confirmation that the President was dead---he would not just have done it because the VP told him to. Or, if he were in the room, he certainly would have had something to say about whether the oath was constitutionally appropriate, rather than just standing there silently in the background (out of focus) as the two political leaders argue. Also, in reality, a VP would be highly circumspect before taking the oath (as Lyndon Johnson apparently was in 1963, albeit pre-Twenty-Fifth Amendment) and would want both certainty as to the president's condition and the public's mood; of course, the VP in this show is such a bad guy that his conduct is not surprising. Finally, since the possibility remained that the crash was  terror-related, every one of these public officals would have been sitting in the secret bunker, not in the White House or in Foggy Bottom.

Still, while the politics were not quite right (this is, after all, more of a soap than a political drama), they did get the Constitution right.


Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 23, 2012 at 10:05 AM in Culture, Howard Wasserman | Permalink


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Political Animals presented a more realistic account of the modern vice presidency (though not the vice president) than other recent t.v. shows (e.g. West Wing, VEEP) or movies (e.g. Dave) by having him engaged in the work of the executive branch rather than absent during high-level discussions. VP Collier's behavior is unrealistic in acting precipitously to take the oath and moving into the Oval Office since, as you point out, circumspection guides vice-presidential behavior in analogous (to the extent there have been any) situations and because any VP in such a situation would want the support of the President's team.

Posted by: Joel Goldstein | Aug 25, 2012 10:22:56 AM

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