Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

An Optimist's What-If

Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

An Optimist's What-If

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON -- The United States has a history of preparing for dire contingencies.

Our nation's first provision for potential death can be found in the Constitution's office of vice president. Twenty-five amendments later, we came up with a constitutional way to replace a president in a coma or going insane.

Congress used its power in modern times to reconfigure presidential succession, thereby ensuring that elected officials -- the House speaker and president pro tempore of the Senate -- were in line after the vice president. By tradition, when Congress and the Supreme Court assemble to hear the president's State of the Union address, one official in the line of succession ostentatiously remains away from the great assemblage -- a reminder of the possibility of disaster.

Of late, we have the joshing of Dick Cheney for spending so much of his time "at an undisclosed location," but the precaution has gained a nervous undertone: What if there were a nuclear or biological attack on the "command and control" of our polity? As a result of the anthrax scare, the unthinkable is being thought about seriously: Do we have backup?

When I worked at the White House, speechwriters were crushed to learn we were not among those to be rushed to an underground facility in case of nuclear exchange. (President Nixon would have had to ad-lib his way out of the crisis.) And as we saw on Sept.11, arrangements are still in place for the swift removal of many leaders from places of vulnerability.

But even assuming today's scary scenarios to be overdrawn, we should treat the recent attacks as a wake-up call. We should be doing as our founders did to ensure governmental function in event of calamity.

Start with something obviously necessary and easy to do: as Professor Lawrence Butler suggests in a D.C. weekly, The Hill, the Senate should make its majority leader the president pro tem. The tradition of having the senior member taking the post made Strom Thurmond at 98 and now Robert Byrd at 83 third in line for the presidency; sometimes tradition asks too much. An amendment to the Presidential Succession Act is all it would take to bring Congress into modern times. …

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