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Designated Survivor compared to The Unelected President

Posted by John T. Reed on

This ABC TV series starts with the President-to-be being told he is about to be fired as HUD Secretary. His wife seems to want him to try to save his job to avoid disrupting her life or that of their kids.

In Designated Survivor, they are not sure initially that the original President is dead. That is not the situation in my Unelected President.

The Unelected President novel

I am not sure how they confirm the President is dead so quickly with such a massive explosion as they depict. My book has another such explosion in a different country and it takes weeks for people to conclude that the head guy there is dead.

President “Tom Kirkman” in Designated Survivor is wearing a Cornell sweat shirt. I’m guessing that means the writer, David Guggenheim, is a Cornell grad? I’m not complaining. My Unelected President has the same undergrad and grad school alma maters as I do.


The murdered president’s assistant chief of staff takes charge as if he, not “Kirkman,” were President. Also, some Army general, apparently the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also acts like he’s President. President “Tom Kirkman” reacts to all this by going to the men’s room and throwing up.

Hollywood, not real

Does anything like that happen in Unelected President? No, and likely not in the real world, either. White House chiefs of staff are habitually servile. So are generals. Think of Petraeus who was pretty typical. The outrageously insubordinate and bossy general in Designated is pure Hollywood, like something out of Dr. Strangelove.

Military coup

Toward the end of the first episode, that General tries to interest the assistant chief of staff in a coup that puts the general in the Oval Office. The assistant does not immediately turn him down. I surmise that will be a future episode.

I tried to find out if David Guggenheim was ever in the military but could not. I think not. 1. Generals do not behave like the guy in Designated, not even close. 2. American generals have never even considered a coup, let alone done one.

Plausible and accurate

I think we novel writers have an obligation to make our fiction as plausible as possible, and to research what is plausible. I worked a lot harder in The Unelected President to do that than Guggenheim did in Designated. I have the same basic plot line of various people trying to remove Medlock from the Oval Office, but I discussed it with political guys like John Fund, Grover Norquist, David Boaz.

In my book, they use civilian political methods to try to take Medlock out, not a freaking military coup. And Designated’s Tom Kirkman has just been HUD secretary for four years. So saying he is incapable of being president compared to some lifer Army guy is a bit of a stretch. Medlock had been nothing of the sort for 40 years. He was a writer.

Fundamentally, the U.S, military totally accepts civilian control of the military and would never even think of such a thing. Guggenheim has been watching too many Hollywood movies about the military.

The usual mandatory Hollywood spectacular special effects

Hollywood, being a visual medium, feels compelled to use spectacular special effects like the blowing up of the capitol leaving a Planet of the Apes-style badly damaged but still recognizable hulk still standing.

A speech writer writing a Presidential speech for first night is a scene in both Designated and my novel, but it goes differently in my novel.

Hair on fire for 60 minutes

The whole first episode of Designated is hair on fire with Kirkman mostly playing the part of a leaf on the water going over Niagara Falls. In The Unelected President, most of the people around Medlock are freaking out and he is telling them to calm down and start dealing with facts not paranoia.

Milking the dream aspect

In both Designated and Unelected, the new presidents have an initial feeling that the whole thing is surreal and likely just a dream. Designated spends more time not moving beyond that. I think Designated—hoping to be a multi-year TV series—has to milk that sort of thing for more air time than I felt compelled to devote in my novel. 

The Unelected President novel

Little old meism

“I’m not the guy for this,” Kirkman says. Medlock compares himself to recent Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama and figures he’s better qualified militarily—which is not saying much. In terms of domestic policy, Medlock figures he will be better than Clinton, Bush, and Obama because he is a non-politician who will actually try to do the right thing.

In terms of government administrative experience, Medlock recognizes Clinton and Bush have him beat, but not Obama. But he figures no president is perfectly suited in all categories and he’s close enough. Kirkman is almost totally conflicted about little old him being President of the United States of America.

Real events and people versus generic ambiguity

But one big difference between my book and Designated is the generic, non-partisan-predecessor, ambiguous time frame of Designated. The President of the United States when my book starts is Barack Obama. The Congress is controlled by Democrats and Republicans.

Some of my proof readers were freaked out by my using real people and events and real dates. It seems to me that to not do so results in a TV series with no soul. West Wing, which Designated’s writer said he hopes to emulate, at least made the President a liberal Democrat. As far as I remember, there was no mention of any political party in Designated. My novel is a crackling bonfire of Democrat, Republican, and libertarian conflict.

Kirkman’s son is missing first night, dealing drugs. I actually considered having one of my sons kidnapped in the novel, but decided I did not have the room for such a subplot.

How the nuclear football works

One scene in Designated seems to contradict the corresponding scene in my book. Ironically, the over-Hollywooded Designated unwittingly derides my book for being too Hollywood. It is the explanation of how the Football works. That’s the briefcase of nuclear codes a military officer always carries 24/7 in the vicinity of the President.

In my defense, how it works is super secret so neither I nor Guggenheim know. And I thought the process of launching a nuclear war would be at least as complex as my being a member of GOES and NEXUS trusted-traveler programs that let you use the express line when entering the US or Canada. Of course, Guggenhiem’s “rebuke” of my Football explanation is just coincidence. He could not know what’s in my book.

The Iranian ambassador to the U.S.???

I was astonished at one scene in Designated. President Kirkman demanded to meet and chew out the Iranian ambassador to the US. Are you kidding me? The U.S. terminated diplomatic relations with Iran in 1979 when Iranian students took over the U.S. embassy there. Those diplomatic relations have never been reinstated. Guggenheim could not be bothered to find that out?

The issue is the Iranians send four destroyers to the Strait of Hormuz. The military guys say 30% of the Western world’s oil goes through there. They are all freaked out about it and Kirkman threatens Tehran with nuclear annihilation in three hours if they do not send the destroyers back to port in Bandar Abbas—which is at the Strait of Hormuz. Mind you the Americans do not know yet who blew up the Capitol.

My President Medlock would have reacted to this with, “Why should I care where four Iranian destroyers are?”

“30% of the western world’s oil goes through there, sir.”

“Yeah, and most of it is probably sold by Iran. If they block the Strait, they hurt themselves. Ignore their destroyers unless they commit an act of war against us. If and when they do, sink ’em. Don’t even ask me for permission. Until then, don’t worry about it. Figure out who blew up the Capitol.”

Tom claims he knows what to do militarily from paying attention at cabinet meetings. Give me a break. They do not discuss detailed military strategy or tactics at those. They are photo ops. I am not even sure full cabinet meetings are a regular event as Kirkman implies.

The speech writer, a Southwest Asian-American, tells him he needs “to be stronger than you’ve ever been before.” Yeah, when I want advice on toughness I always consult a speech writer from the land of Ghandi.

Guggenheim recycles 9/11 and Hurt Locker in Designated’s first episode. There is footage of a bunch of first responders climbing over rubble like 9/11 and German shepherds sniffing it. I thought they were looking for survivors.

A ‘bomb’ in the rubble of a bomb

No, they are bomb-sniffing dogs. So about 20,000 pounds of TNT has just gone off there and they bring in dogs to see if they can sniff any explosives? Isn’t that like throwing a kerosene-sniffing dog into an olympic size swimming pool full of kerosene to see if he can sniff an unopened can of kerosene?

But, through the magic of Hollywood and the laziness of Guggenheim in terms of research, lo and behold, the Hollywood dogs find a Hollywood “bomb” in the still hot rubble of a huge bomb.

When I looked at it I thought, “That’s not a bomb. It’s an anti-vehicle contact mine.” (I was in the Army for eight years.)

The script later says it is a Soviet anti-tank mine left over from the USSR’s war in Afghanistan. It looked too small to be anti-tank to me.

The Unelected President novel

If you liked Hurt Locker...

Anyway, they bring in Hurt Locker bomb disposal guys in space suits recreating the Hurt Locker bomb defusing scenes. When they open it up, it’s full of jazzy stainless steel cylinders and dozens of wires going hither and yon.

What total bullshit! We were actually trained in how to find and defuse an anti-vehicle contact mine at West Point. You find it by poking your bayonet at a slightly down angle in front of you. You want to hit the side of it. Hitting the top sets it off.

After you find it, you gently blow or brush away the dirt on top of it. It consists of three elements: the canister of high explosive at the bottom, a vertical rod coming up out of the middle of the explosive, and a flat, horizontal pressure plate on top of the rod.

When a vehicle drives over the pressure plate, that triggers a spring loaded firing pin that hits the bottom of a cartridge. When the cartridge goes off, instead of firing a bullet, it just fires explosive hot gasses into the high explosive material setting if off. As much as possible, modern mines have no metal so they cannot be found using metal detectors. They are not electrical in any way. They are like mouse traps. The detonator is like a pistol pointed into the high explosive and downward pressure on the plate pulls the trigger firing the blank cartridge into the HE.

 Designated has the classic nonsense Hollywood version where you have to figure out which wire is the one to pull to disarm it. In fact, you disarm it by placing a U-shaped spacer between the pressure plate and the main body of the mine. That prevents the pressure plate from pushing down. Then you unscrew the collar around the vertical rod and remove the cartridge detonator. If I had written a scene like that, I would have researched it. Here, I’m just remembering a one-hour class from the summer of 1965. Guggenheim could not research it or hire an advisor? Maybe they could not care less about accuracy. All they want is the cliche “it doesn’t work that way” Hollywood nonsense scene.

How did a contact anti-tank mine not get triggered by the 20,000 pounds of TNT exploding? As it said, it works like a mousetrap. How many set mousetraps would not have been triggered by a 20,000-pound bomb going off.

How did the perps get an anti-tank mine from a 1989 war into the House of Representatives chamber?

And why? It would be like sending a second plane over Hiroshima after the atomic bomb to toss a satchel charge at the rubble? They had another stupid anti-tank mine scene like this in Monument Men. Idiotic.

An apolitical political thriller? WTF?

What I really hate is the idea of a “political thriller” with a soulless, generic couple of presidents, no party, no political tension, no actual date, no actual events. Just sort of 21st centuryish sanitized politicians sleep walking through Hollywood military cliches.

My novel is a do over of early 2013 with a non-politician president pushing libertarian initiatives and reacting to the national and international crises of the time using both real and fictional events and people. My book is quite pertinent to the current 2016 election. Designated strained very hard to be Irrelevant to it for fear of offending possible viewers or advertisers.
Ironically, this TV series about a non-politician president is written by a Hollywood politician writer. Medlock is not afraid to do anything for political reasons. Guggenheim is afraid to do almost everything that might offend some Hollywood liberal or reduce ratings. That is a tremendous competitive advantage for me.

You want a Hollywood version, you get cliches, political sanitization, special effects, and little relation to reality except for the use of the White House and Capitol buildings as props, no soul, watch Designated.

2nd episode

The second episode on 9/28/16 was better.

An underling says he needs to close all the banks. Another disagrees. He closes them. No explanation as to why. Apparently, just to look like he’s in charge. Wrong decision. Very bad. He has no such authority and it suggests something is extremely wrong with financial system. There is not. Medlock would go the other way and rescind a couple of past Executive Orders that purport to grant the President such powers. If they are not in the Constitution, you cannot create them by self-fiat. And even if he had such powers, you don’t use them just to fake being in charge and self-confident.

The Unelected President novel

When is Oval Office is filled with people 20 people telling him to do this do—conflicting advice—he tries to quiet them but they cannot hear him. So he flees the office. I actually was in that situation twice in the last couple of decades. I was not in charge of the meeting but I saw that the person who was lacked the command voice or command presence to get it done, got tired of waiting and I yelled the pertinent military command—even though one group was football coaches and the other Harvard MBA reunion attendees. “At ease!” I said. Instant silence. At Harvard, the petite female leader thanked me then got the class going.

Kirkman has no idea of how to do that or the confidence to do it. I am skeptical that a four-year HUD secretary would be unable to quiet a room of white-collar workers. But then you would think that a room filled with about 85 Harvard MBA grads of all ages would have more people who could take charge and get the scheduled meeting going. 

Mike Medlock has the same background as me and if he needed a room full of twenty people to quiet down he would damned well quiet them down in about one second.

In a clear Democrat party hack bit of writing, some cops briefly hassle the Indian speech writer in a profiling incident. And local cops in Dearborn, MI start mass rounding up Muslims and beating them, killing one. The Governor says he ordered it and that the president had no authority to stop him. Actually, the mayor of Dearborn should say the same thing to the governor. Not to mention the unconstitutionality of the behavior. I do not believe a governor or mayor would do such a thing in 2016.

Kirkman is still bewildered most of the time if not all the time. I saw this with myself and my classmates at West Point when we first entered at 17 and 18 years old. At the rate they are going, they are misrepresenting how long it takes to learn to be in charge. Although we had lots of role models. Kirkman does not in the White House.

I liked the scene where they analyzed the planted bomb and found evidence pointing to a particular fictional Muslim group. One FBI agent expressed suspicion it may have been meant to mislead as to who did it. Excellent. I made a speech to the FreedomFest last year about nuclear war and I said one great risk might be that country A who hates country B might attack the US in a way designed to make the US retaliate incorrectly against Country B.

Kirkman finally gets pissed at being argued with and angrily yells at the big general in front of a crowded room.

Kirkman won’t attack the suspect Muslim group based on 75% probability of who did it. He insists on a higher standard of confidence. Okay. Correct decision, but such matters normally lend themselves to such precise mathematical probabilities. But he is correct that they have time to be more sure.

Kirkman uses a bull horn while standing on the rubble like Bush. Jesus! Are we going to have a medley of famous news and movie scenes in every episode? What’s next week? A group of five Marines raising an American flag pole on top of the Capitol rubble? Kirkman and the general having a draw six shooters and shoot each other on Main Street gun fight?

In one scene, the assistant chief of staff says they need to keep the “Social Security checks” keep going out. I have almost that exact same scene in my book, but unlike the writer of Designated, I did my homework.

It turns out that starting, I think in March, 2013, all SS payments are made by direct deposit, not checks per se. I changed the title of a chapter to reflect that. But the writer of this multimillion-dollar, Hollywood production cannot be bothered to check such things.

Kirkman lies to the MI governor to get him to release the arrested Muslims. He does this in front of a room with about 12 people in it. You cannot keep such a secret when you lie like that. Very bad move. In the real world, the secret would get out and the President’s credibility would be damaged.

Actually, the correct action is straightforward. The Justice Department goes to MI to investigate whether the civil rights of the Muslims were violated then prosecutes the Dearborn police. A federal judge would order the release. Kirkman was presented with two poor solutions, maybe three, which he rejected based on some nutty Hollywood calculus. Their bluff was offered to us as a really clever solution. No, it was just evidence to the lack of integrity of the writer.

As a tease for the next episode, they found a survivor in the rubble at the end.

Episode 3

I have to laugh at many of the similarities in plot between Designated and Unelected. Tonight, they have a power outage in the White House caused by a computer hack. My book has a far more epic power outage.

And Mike Medlock assumes computers are compromised and uses couriers, snail mail, and IBM Selectric typewriters, driving the staff nuts with such retro methods. Computers in the Medlock White House are guarded by tech experts and generally disconnected, attached to encryption machines, and flash drives and CDs and such are strictly prohibited. He’s paranoid about hacking. He rarely holds secret meetings in expected rooms, fearing the usual secret briefing rooms may be bugged. He moves his office out of the Oval Office.

The Unelected President novel

Fired before the explosion?

Designated has a sub plot about whether Kirkman was fired or not before the explosion. I did not think of that, but my plots are complex enough without that. I wanted the legality of his Presidency to be unquestionable, but to let the political winds and waves slam into him.

This Designated subplot is not really internally consistent. The very name of the series—Designated Survivor—means that the individual in question has not been fired from the cabinet. If he was, someone else would have had to be the DS.

Lies and cover-ups

Kirkman is very quick to lie and cover up things that he figures the public is not smart enough to handle. Merely suggesting such things in the Medlock White House gets you summarily fired.

Drug dealer

Kirkman’s son is a 15-year old drug dealer. Medlock would probably resign to deal with that. Ask my kids. Seems like a subplot too far.

Hollywood’s worst depiction of military officers

Kirkman walked into a rotunda where the dead President is lying in state and a bunch of military officers stood up and saluted him. Each and every salute looked like the saluter was never in the military. Not to mention that you do not stand up and salute when a higher ranking guy walks into a room. You just come to attention. You only salute indoors when reporting to a superior officer. Freaking $1.98 budget for getting advice on making the military aspects realistic.

About the only worse depiction of military officers lately is the Arnold Schwarzenegger Mobile Strike computer game ads. 

Congresswoman Hookstratton

More idiotic lack of research. They are saying a Republican Congresswoman who was also told to stay away from the State of the Union Address is the other Designated Survivor and that maybe she is the President if Kirkman was fired. They are also saying she is “the Congress” and can approve the new cabinet members.

That‘s all bull. The list of who can be a designated survivor is the Presidential Succession Act of 1947. There is no House member on the list other than the Speaker.

Furthermore, she may be the lone surviving member of Congress, but she is a Representative, not a Senator, so that means she cannot confirm anyone. Even if she were a Senator, I would expect there is a definition of a quorum and that it is not one person.

Top priority: protect the Muslim terrorists from being framed

The big integrity issue Kirkman has is protecting an Islamic terrorist group who may be being framed from a U.S. nuclear attack. Only Hollywood in the 21st century would create such a plot. Islamic terrorists are the victims, not the people who were killed, and political correctness is the highest virtue amid the chaos. Rush went nuts about the second episode yesterday for this crap. Wait’ll he gets a load of the third episode.

Kirkman’s assistant chief of staff leaks a video, then, when caught, offers his written resignation, which, for some reason, he carries around in his pocket when he has no idea that he will be caught. Medlock would have fired him before he took it out of his pocket. Kirkman promotes him!!??

And the episode ends with his new assistant doing opposition research on the President who just hired him. Such exponential cynicism is beyond my ability to conjure.

10/26/16 episode

I was  a little startled by the similarity of a scene in the national military command center, except Kirkman screwed it up in ways that Medlock would not and did not in the book.

Jesus! No one in this cast can be bothered to learn how to salute! Fly me down to Hollywood and I’ll give you a free lesson.

Kirkman’s wife says, ”You’re not asking the SEAL team to do anything they were not trained to do.” That’s bull. It’s next to impossible to replicate the enemy and the situation in training. Plans are the first casualty. Dealing with the unexpected is the norm. All the military actions in The Unelected President have that.

Kirkman uses SEALs in a bin Laden look-alike operation with a little Iranian rescue sand storm and chopper crash. This series is largely recycled scenes from Hollywood and real past actions. There are no SEAL actions in Unelected because of no situation where they are the correct tool. Nor were they the correct tool in Designated. They should have used a bomb, not a SEAL team. See my article on the bin Laden killing.

Kirkman’s wife again, “Casualties are inevitable.” That’s dead wrong and one of the main things wrong with our military. Medlock tries to avoid all US casualties. Read the book to see how well he succeeds at that.

Designated Survivor is a freaking soap opera. Now we got a paternity deal with the President’s son.


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