President Michael Armacost? the Continuity of Government after September 11

By Fortier, John | Brookings Review, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

President Michael Armacost? the Continuity of Government after September 11


Fortier, John, Brookings Review


President Michael Armacost" is a phrase with a familiar ring to it in the nation's capital, for Armacost served ably as Brookings' fifth president from 1995 to 2002. But Armacost might have become president not of Brookings, but of the United States. Had that happened, he would have needed all the leadership skills he had honed at the highest levels of the U.S. foreign service--and perhaps more. For an Armacost presidency would have come about because of a catastrophic terrorist attack, combined with potentially disabling quirks in the U.S. presidential succession system.

The story begins on January 20, 1989, at the inauguration of the 41st president, George H. W. Bush. At noon on that day, President Ronald Reagan's term expired, and Chief Justice William Rehnquist administered the oath of office to Bush. What if, during that ceremony, terrorists had flown a plane into the West front of the Capitol, where the inauguration ceremony was taking place, or set off a powerful bomb? The result would have been chaos. Any attack against U.S. political leadership is a threat to national security, but the inauguration is the most vulnerable time for the government, when the mechanisms for providing an orderly transfer of power to a presidential successor threaten to break down.

President Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle were, of course, present at the ceremony. Next in line of succession were Speaker of the House Jim Wright and Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Byrd, both of whom attended the inauguration. A devastating terrorist attack would have killed all of them along with many members of Congress and several Supreme Court justices, including the chief justice.

So who would have been president? Next in line after the speaker and the president pro tem are the cabinet officers in the chronological order of the creation of their departments. But which cabinet? Because the attack came on Inauguration Day, George Bush had not yet nominated his cabinet. A several-hour interval always ensues between a new president's taking office at noon and Senate confirmation of the cabinet.

So in the case of a calamitous attack at an inauguration, the new president would have no cabinet, and the presidency would pass to the cabinet members of the previous administration. A presidential term has a beginning and end defined by the Constitution. At noon on January 20, 1989, the terms of President Reagan and Vice President Bush ended. But the terms of cabinet members are not constitutionally limited. Cabinet members stay in office until they resign, die, are impeached and convicted, or are removed by a president. So any of Reagan's cabinet members who had not resigned at noon would have remained in the line of succession. And in 1989, several additional wrinkles would have complicated still further the transfer of power from Reagan to Bush--highlighting yet again the difficulties in our presidential succession system. Three of Reagan's cabinet members--Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady, Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, and Education Secretary Lauro Cavazos--stayed on after his term ended, as Bush had asked them to serve in his new administration. Reagan's other cabinet secretaries resigned at noon, leaving their departments in the hands of acting secretaries.

According to the Presidential Succession Act, an acting secretary of a department is in the line of succession as long as he or she has been confirmed by the Senate for some position. On January 20, 1989, at noon, Reagan's secretary of state, George Shulz, had resigned, as had the number-two person in the State Department, John Whitehead. The number-three person at State, the undersecretary for political affairs, who became acting secretary of state, was Michael Armacost. As the secretary of state is first among the cabinet in the line of succession, Armacost would have become president of the United States.

After the Bush inauguration the Senate did not move expeditiously to confirm President Bush's appointments to the cabinet. …

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