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Comments on the ‘Designated Survivor’ trailer

Posted by John Reed on

There is a new TV series titled “Designated Survivor” starring Kiefer Sutherland. ( Because it is about a guy who becomes president accidentally and unexpectedly—like “Mike Medlock” in my Unelected President novel—I took a special interest in this.

The Unelected President novel

I have not seen the series, of course. No one but insiders have. And there is no need to prove the series is bad to sell my books. Both can be excellent and I hope they are. Success of Designated Survivor might help sales of my book by whetting people’s appetite for this genre—unlikely persons becoming president unexpectedly.

But having just written my book, the trailer inspired a number of thoughts. For one thing, I had the phrase “designated survivor” in the book in one scene. When I saw it was the title of a new TV series, I took it out.

Huge explosion at the House Chamber

As the trailer shows. Sutherland becomes President because of a huge explosion in the House during the State of the Union speech of the President.  I considered that way of making my guy become President. But I rejected as too expected at this time.

That is the scenario the average person would choose if asked to come up with a way to get an obscure person to become President. Plus I try to get the technical details correct in my book and it would be hard to kill 18 people in the line of succession to the Presidency at one time.

Yes, one really big bomb would do it. But how do you get such a bomb into the House Chamber? Security would likely be extremely tight with so many big shots in sone room—also Congress, most of the Supreme Court, the president and vice president and the cabinet. Some would say drop it from a plane or put it on a missile. I expect that air space would be restricted during that speech. And a missile has a hard time carrying such a large conventional payload. The explosion in the trailer did not seem to be nuclear.

But bombs and missiles hit the roof and that is a really substantial building. You would need a bunker buster and those are extremely heavy because of the steel casing required to keep it intact during penetration. The first ones used a heavy artillery cannon barrel as the casing. Missiles generally cannot deliver such a huge bomb, only bombers can.

Is it possible to pull off such a huge explosion? Yes, but it would be technically very difficult and would require a bomber or nuclear missile and they would be on radar in enough time to sound the alarm. They could probably get the President into a bomb shelter inside the Capitol within about 30 seconds.


Another reason I rejected that blow-up-the-State-of-the-Union scenario was that it was overkill, spectacular Hollywood grandiosity. You don’t need to kill twenty guys to get a totally outsider non-politician into the Oval Office. As you will read in my book, “President Medlock” is very big on using just enough force, and no more, when force is required. 

An outsider, I MEAN totally outsider

The fun of the plot is to put almost the last guy you would ever expect to be there into the White House. Sutherland’s character is a cabinet member. For chrissake, that means he was political enough that the President considered him something like one of his 40 or 50 best associates. And he was political enough to get confirmed by the U.S. Senate. My guy, “Mike Medlock” has never been within 100 feet of a President. And he could not be confirmed as an assistant deputy under secretary of Commerce, let alone a cabinet secretary.

The Presidential Succession Act of 1947 lists 19 people including the President who are in line to succeed to the Presidency in the event others higher on the list die or are incapacitated. Only one is extremely obscure: the President Pro Tempore of the Senate.

The vast majority of Americans have never heard of the office. Hardly anyone knows who holds it at present (I’ll tell you at the end of this article). And hardly anyone knows what the President Pro Tem does. Hell, I did not! I just looked it up.

Normally, the Vice-President of the United States presides over the senate. The President Pro Tempore is his back-up in that role—sort of the vice president of the vice president.

Number three in line to be President is the Speaker of the House. So you would expect the Senate equivalent to be fourth. Nope. That would be the Senate Majority Leader. Why is this? Damned if I know.

How is the President Pro Tempore selected. It customarily goes to the the Senator in the majority party who has the longest continuous service in the Senate.

The most junior guy in the tiniest party

So how does my libertarian just arrived to fill out a dead senator’s term get the job. Read the book. But when he does, he is in the most off-the-wall position to possibly become President of them all. And only three guys need to die.


Sutherland’s reaction to becoming President according to the trailer looks like bewilderment. I do not know what that character’s background supposedly is. My guy “Medlock” had been a platoon leader in Vietnam and a company commander with over 400 men under him, coached over 900 people, been a landlord to hundreds, appeared in front of 35 million people on 60 Minutes. He is shocked, buy comfortable in command, in charge, and in appearing before tens of millions of people. The job is certainly an adjustment for him, but not an occasion for bewilderment.

Based on what little you see in the trailer, it looked to me like he really should resign and let someone more suited take over. “Mike Medlock” agonizes over whether to nominate a more suitable person for VP then resign. Because of the particular person who would succeed him and his lack of libertarian party support in congress for getting such a VP nominee confirmed, “Medlock” concludes he has a duty to stay in the job.

Both Sutherland and Medlock get a lot of crap from people who think a total outsider, non-politician has no business being President and try to intimidate him into resigning.

In the trailer, Sutherland says, “You may be right [that I should step down] but for now I’m all you got.” That’s bull. He could nominate a more suitable person who could get confirmed for VP then resign.

“Medlock” knows more about the theater of command than to admit that to an underling that he may not be the guy for the job. He has that conversation with himself silently and with his family privately, but not in front of “the troops.”

And his attitude about keeping the job is, “I’m the President pursuant to the Succession Act of 1947 until my term is up or I get impeached, whichever come first. As long as I have the job, I will DO the job full speed ahead.” No “I’m all you got.

Sutherland seems to exhibit a prolonged Hamletesque indecision about the whole situation. Again, “Medlock” knows instinctively from West Point training and the Army and coaching and landlording that he must wear the mask of command and be ever mindful of the theater of command especially when you relate to 99.99% of the led through TV.

A leader is like a lion tamer. He needs to act like he belongs there. As the Bible says, “If the trumpet make an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself for battle?”

Another line in the trailer that must make experienced military leaders cringe is the Sutherland President telling a general “We’re going to do this my way. If it doesn’t, we’ll do it your way.”

When you command the military to take an action, you need to commit 100% to that. Military operations rarely go as you planned and expected, but among military people that almost goes without saying. You deal with what happens as it happens. You don’t commit to a Plan B in advance, especially the favorite plan of the guy you are counting on the carry out Plan A.

I learned this also in football coaching. You go into the game with a game plan—Plan A—but as I say in my football coaching books, you also need to have adjustments in mind in advance if certain common problems arise—injury, no success with a particular play or defense. But you do not argue with subordinate coaches before the game and commit to defer to an assistant’s plan in advance. You may well go with it in the event, but you make that decision then, not in advance in public in front of your subordinates. You don’t negotiate your command decisions with subordinate leaders as you prepare for military operations. 

In general, the teleplay writer seems to have never been in command of anything and has Sutherland acting like some sort of everyman with no experience at all in leading adults. If he is that bad, he probably will not last a minute in the lion cage.

In order for a character to have any chance of succeeding in the role of President of the United States, he must have some gut feeling for the essence of command. It is one thing to be inexperienced in politics as Sutherland and “Medlock.” It is quite another to be totally unprepared for the entire job which includes commander in chief of the military, chief law enforcement person, the guy in charge of firing bureaucrats and generals who do not get the job done, and the guy in charge of getting millions of bureaucrats to do their jobs. There ARE some basic requirements for the job other than elective office experience. I see no acknowledgement of that in the trailer. 

By the way, the current President Pre Tempore of the U.S. Senate, the number four person in line to be President of the U.S. is Orrin Hatch (R-UT).

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