The somewhat elaborate rules and laws governing succession to the Presidency
have long provided fodder for creators of fiction. Several novels
, and television series
have speculated regarding the United States presidential line of succession
and in what ways it would be implemented in unusual circumstances. The following are some examples of fictional portrayals of United States presidential succession:
- Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank (1959): A global nuclear war eliminates the line of succession down to the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, Josephine Vanbruuker-Brown.
- American Empire: The Center Cannot Hold by Harry Turtledove (2002): In the 1932 Presidential election, Calvin Coolidge defeats incumbent President Hosea Blackford. One month before Coolidge was to be sworn in, he dies of coronary thrombosis while in Washington to meet with his Cabinet selections. Under the 20th Amendment, Vice-President-elect Herbert Hoover was sworn in to serve Coolidge's term.
- Arc Light by Eric L. Harry (1994), features the 25th Amendment in the context of a limited nuclear war. President Walter Livingston is impeached for warning China that the Russians were preparing to attack them, which resulted in a Russian nuclear strike on the United States.
- Debt of Honor/Executive Orders by Tom Clancy (1994/1996): After Vice President Ed Kealty resigns following a sex scandal, National Security Advisor Jack Ryan is appointed to fill the position for the remainder of the term. During a joint session of Congress, he is confirmed by unanimous voice vote. Before he is sworn in, however, a vengeful Japanese airline pilot crashes his fuel-laden Boeing 747 into the Capitol. Almost everyone inside is killed, including the President. Ryan, who barely escapes, is sworn in as the new President, but the legitimacy of his administration is challenged by the former Vice President, who claims he never really resigned. However, Ryan's Presidency is eventually confirmed by a Federal District Court judge.
- Deep Six by Clive Cussler (1984): After the presidential yacht, the Eagle, goes missing with the President, Vice President Vincent Margolin, Speaker of the House Alan Moran and President of the Senate pro tempore Marcus Larimar on board, Secretary of State (and now Acting President) Douglas Oates orders a cover-up, with actors playing the President and Vice President while Oates executed executive powers. The President is brainwashed by Soviet forces, and returns to office. However, after his incredibly irrational decision making (including using the armed forces to disperse Congressional meetings to prevent his impeachment) the members of his cabinet orchestrate a kidnapping. The President is successfully impeached, when it becomes apparent that Moran has escaped from the Soviets and Larimer is dead. To ensure that he takes over the Presidency, Moran makes a deal with the Korean shipping company holding the Vice President to have him killed, in exchange for favours. Since the President has been impeached and the Vice President is nowhere to be found, Moran is to be sworn in as President (not merely Acting President.) However, a desperate rescue attempt to save Margolin succeeds, and Moran is denied the Presidency halfway through his swearing-in.
- Empire by Orson Scott Card (2006), features the assassinations of the President and Vice President, which causes a civil war, later revealed to be instigated by the National Security Advisor, who eventually becomes President.
- Father's Day, by John Calvin Batchelor, features the 25th Amendment as a tool of political intrigue. ISBN 0-8050-3266-5.
- The Fourth K by Mario Puzo (1990), features Congress trying to remove President Francis Xavier Kennedy (a fictional nephew of John F. Kennedy) from office, using the 25th Amendment, claiming that he is mentally unfit to serve, following the assassination of his daughter.
- Full Disclosure by William Safire (1978): The President is blinded by an assassination attempt while at a summit meeting in the Soviet Union, and an ambitious Secretary of the Treasury attempts to use the 25th Amendment to unseat him. In time, several members of his Cabinet come to believe that his blindness renders him unable to discharge the duties of his office, and they vote to replace him with the Vice President under the terms of the 25th Amendment. The President survives this vote but realizes that his political effectiveness is virtually at an end. He prevails upon the weak-willed Vice President to resign, and then promptly resigns himself, elevating the Speaker of the House to the Presidency.
- Give Me Liberty a graphic novel by Frank Miller (1990): An alternate history in which America is led through a time of economic depression and civil uprisings by President Erwin Rexall, who is elected in the year 1996. By the year 2009, just as his fourth term is beginning (he was effective in repealing the 22nd Amendment), the White House is destroyed, President Rexall is incapacitated, and Vice President Cargo, along with all but one member of the Cabinet, is killed. The Secretary of Agriculture, Howard Nissen, assumes the presidency. He has a difficult reign trying to grapple with the country's manifold problems. In 2011, following his resultant mental and moral disintegration, he is stabbed to death by his own Cabinet members. Shortly after, the rebuilt White House is destroyed again, and the line of succession is out of options. Various states are seceding left and right, and a military dictatorship, led by Colonel Stanley Moretti, takes control of what remains of the United States.
- Interface by Neal Stephenson and George Jewsbury (1994). The President-Elect gets shot at his inauguration by a psychotic former factory worker who has somehow figured out the Network's plans almost entirely, killing him almost instantly. Eleanor Richmond, his running mate, ends up as the first black and first female President of the United States.
- Line of Succession by Brian Garfield (1972): During the period between the election and Inauguration Day, the President-elect and the Vice President-elect are both killed by terrorists, along with the Speaker of the House. The President pro tempore of the Senate is totally unsuitable for the Presidency. The incumbent President, defeated for re-election in November, wants to use the situation to stay in office.
- The Man by Irving Wallace (1964): The Vice President had died of a heart attack, and the office is vacant (the 25th Amendment had not yet been written). The President and the Speaker of the House both die as the result of the accidental collapse of a building, and the President pro tempore of the Senate, an African-American, becomes President. The conservative members of both parties soon find pretexts to impeach him.
- The People's Choice: A Cautionary Tale by Jeff Greenfield (1996): A conservative Republican President-Elect dies in an accident only a few days after the general election, and therefore before the Electoral College has met. The Vice President-Elect is not only more liberal, but generally regarded to be a mental midget, and is therefore unpalatable to most of the Electors, whose role and obligation at this point in the process is suddenly unclear. The novel was a satire, but the factual basis for the scenario is quite sound; there does not seem to be any clear mandate for how electors should vote in such circumstances.
- The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (2004): In this alternate history, Charles Lindbergh is nominated by the Republican Party in 1940 and defeats Roosevelt on an isolationist platform. When he disappears in The Spirit of St. Louis after a campaign stop, Vice-President Burton Wheeler seizes power and initiates an Anti-Semitic witch hunt.
- Settling Accounts: Return Engagement by Harry Turtledove (2004): In this alternate history, President Al Smith is killed when the presidential residence in Philadelphia, the Powel House, is destroyed in a Confederate air raid in 1942. Vice President Charles M. La Follette is then sworn in as President.
- Thirty-Four East by Alfred Coppel (1974): The Vice President is kidnapped by Arab terrorists during a visit to the Middle East; at the same time, the President is killed in the accidental crash of Air Force One. With the Vice President incapacitated, the Speaker of the House, a weak man manipulated by the ambitious Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, becomes Acting President while the world is on the verge of World War III.
- Trinity's Child by William Prochnau (1983): A massive nuclear attack on the United States wipes out Washington and half of the Cabinet. The Secretary of the Interior assumes the Presidency and continues to fight World War III. The real President is found to still be living; however, the Secretary of the Interior refuses to relinquish his new office. Thus, the nation, for several hours, has two Presidents giving conflicting orders during a time of great peril.
- Warday by Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka (1984): The 25th Amendment is incidentally referenced as part of a larger post-apocalyptic narrative. Following a nuclear war, much of the United States is destroyed, including Washington. The Deputy Secretary of the Treasury is eventually found, and deemed to be the highest-ranking politician to survive the war. He is installed as President, but insists that he is merely a caretaker and refuses to use the full title of the office.
- Worldwar: Upsetting the Balance/Worldwar: Striking the Balance by Harry Turtledove (1996/1997): During the interplanetary war between The Race and the formerly warring powers of World War II, Seattle is destroyed in 1943 by the Race in retaliation for the U.S. destruction of a Conquest Fleet division in Chicago. The strike on Seattle kills Vice President Henry Wallace, who was visiting the city at the time. In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt dies of unspecified causes. With the Vice Presidency vacant, Secretary of State Cordell Hull assumes the Presidency after Roosevelt's death, as he is the holder of the next-highest post.
- Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra (2003-2008): In this comic book series published by Vertigo, every male mammal on Earth but two simultaneously die of a mysterious plague. As a result, the highest ranking woman, Secretary of Agriculture Margaret Valentine succeeds to the presidency. Valentine protests, saying the Secretary of the Interior outranks her, but her new security escort informs her that the latter was killed in one of the many plane crashes. When this scene was published in 2003, the real-world Secretary of Interior and Secretary of Agriculture were both women, Gale Norton and Ann Margaret Veneman, respectively.
- Advise and Consent (1962), an adaptation of Allen Drury's best-selling novel. A gravely-ill President (Franchot Tone) attempts to install a controversial nominee for Secretary of State, despite reservations by leading members of his own party in the U.S. Senate. The President knows he is likely to die in office and presses his good friend, Sen. Munson, to steer Leffingwell's nomination through the Senate: I'm going fast... I haven't any time to run a school for presidents. The President dies in office and his Vice President, Harley Hudson, succeeds him.
- Air Force One (1997), action movie starring Harrison Ford. After Air Force One has been captured by Kazakh terrorists, with U.S. President Jim Marshall (Harrison Ford) on board, the Secretary of Defense claims that he's in charge based on the National Security Act of 1947, with the eventual agreement of the Attorney General. However, knowing that the President is being held by terrorists and forced into using his authority to release a terrorist leader, the entire Cabinet endorses the invocation of Section 4 of the 25th Amendment, signing a letter to that effect, whereby Vice President Bennett (Glenn Close) would assume command. The Vice President, uncertain of the President's situation and unwilling to be seen as making a grab for power, refuses to finalize the President's removal from power.
- By Dawn's Early Light (1990), adaptation of William Prochnau's novel Trinity's Child (see above), starring Powers Boothe, Rebecca De Mornay, and James Earl Jones. The President, played by Martin Landau, is presumed dead after a nuclear missile hits Washington; others are missing, and the next available member of the chain of succession is Secretary of the Interior played by Darren McGavin.
- The plot of the film The Contender was centered around the confirmation of a female senator to the office of Vice President.
- Dave (1993), starring Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver: When a stroke causes President Mitchell to fall into a coma, the White House Chief of Staff (Frank Langella) sees a way to seize power by replacing the President with a look-alike named Dave, whom he expects to manipulate as a patsy. Once the look-alike realizes what is happening, he thwarts the Chief of Staff's political intentions and then arranges to switch back with the real President (who is still in a coma), by feigning a stroke himself. The actual President then dies, and the Vice President is sworn into office.
- The Day After Tomorrow (2004), starring Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal: When the President's helicopter crashes after its wings freeze, the Vice-President becomes President while he stays at a refugee camp in Mexico.
- Eagle Eye (2008), starring Shia LaBeouf and Michelle Monaghan: ARIA, The Pentagon's Super-computer, attempts to assasinate the president, vice president, and the entire line of succession (except for the Secretary of Defence, who ARIA plans to become president) to "fix" the executive branch.
- The Enemy Within (1994), a made-for-TV version of the novel Seven Days in May by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey, starring Forest Whitaker and Jason Robards. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Vice President, and a wealthy media baron attempt to use the 25th Amendment as justification for a coup to unseat a President. The dovish, somewhat weak President's authority is challenged by the hawkish, politically-popular Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. To obtain power, the Chairman plans to have the President (played by Sam Waterston) declared incompetent by the Cabinet and replaced by the Vice President, who would then be a "puppet" to the Chairman. (This implementation of the planned coup d'etat differs sharply from that of the original novel.)
- The Man (1972), a made-for-TV adaptation of the Irving Wallace book (see above). Screenplay by Rod Serling, starring James Earl Jones, Martin Balsam and Burgess Meredith. In the movie, the Vice President is still alive but elderly and infirm; he declines to assume the Presidency upon the death of the President. The Presidency thus passes to the black President pro tem of the Senate.
- Mars Attacks! (1996). President James Dale (Jack Nicholson) is killed in the invasion, along with the First Lady, and the entire US Congress; the Vice President, the Supreme Court Justices, and the Cabinet members may have been killed as well. At the end of the film the late President's daughter (Natalie Portman) is exercising the responsibilities of the Presidency by awarding medals to the heroes in the film.
- My Fellow Americans (1996), starring Jack Lemmon and James Garner. The President is forced to resign, in a plan orchestrated by the scheming Vice President. Eventually his scheme is revealed and he is impeached, making the House Speaker President.
- XXX 2: State of the Union (2005), an action/adventure film, directed by Lee Tamahori. When the President adopts an internationalist policy of diplomacy towards enemies of the United States, the hawkish Secretary of Defense attempts a coup that will wipe out key members of the government during the President's State of the Union address, leaving him in charge.
- In season 2, a narrow majority of President David Palmer's Cabinet invokes Section 4 of the 25th Amendment and removes the President from office, installing Vice President Jim Prescott as Acting President. The President's removal, contrary to the intent of the amendment, is due to the Cabinet's belief that Palmer is making irrational decisions regarding the country's response to a terrorist attack. In reality, Palmer could have disputed the invocation of the 25th Amendment by transmitting a dissenting letter to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Palmer would then have been legally empowered to continue discharging the duties of President unless the Vice President and Cabinet renewed their petition, at which point the Vice President would act as President until Congress could vote on the issue. Even still, the President's decisions are shown to be rational within a few hours of his removal, and the Vice President and supporting Cabinet members rescind their earlier vote. Upon the first vote that removes him from power, Palmer is advised he can appeal the judgment to Congress in four days. The 25th amendment mentions a four-day period as the time limit for the Cabinet to affirm its belief the President is unfit for duty. This error may have been the result of a screenwriter's misinterpretation of the text of the amendment. Ironically, at the end of that day's events, President Palmer is incapacitated by a biological weapon, and James Prescott is again sworn in as Acting President (shown in 24: The Game).
- In season 4, President John Keeler is severely injured when Air Force One is shot down by a stealth fighter. The Cabinet unanimously invokes the 25th Amendment and Vice President Charles Logan is sworn in shortly thereafter. Logan serves as President throughout season 5, by which time he has appointed a new Vice President, which implies he has fully assumed the Presidency, rather than acting as President. Keeler is never confirmed to have died on screen, although this could be inferred as the possibility of his return to power would supersede the need to confirm a new VP, and Logan, while acting as President, would technically still be the VP.
- In the 00AM-7:00AM (first aired May 22, 2006), Logan is taken into custody by the United States Marshals Service after evidence emerges that he was party to the assassination of former President David Palmer. It is implied that Logan will either resign his office or face impeachment proceedings.
- In season 6, President Wayne Palmer is severely injured when a bomb in the White House Bunker goes off. Per Section 3 of the 25th Amendment, Vice President Noah Daniels becomes Acting President; the Secretary of Defense deemed the injuries that Palmer sustained too severe to hope for the president's full recovery. Later, when Daniels orders a low-scale nuclear strike on an Arab nation suspected of having terrorist ties, National Security Advisor Karen Hayes arranges for doctors to revive Palmer, who cancels the strike. In a move similar to the second season, Daniels suggests Palmer is still not fit for command, citing his cancellation of the strike as evidence. The Cabinet is convened for a hearing and votes 7-7 on the subject of Palmer's fitness. The Attorney General rightly points out that the Vice President can only invoke the 25th Amendment when a majority of the Cabinet agrees, and a tie vote does not constitute a majority. Daniels then claims that Hayes' vote shouldn't count as she technically resigned earlier in the day, although she claims she returned and rescinded her resignation before it was officially accepted. The Supreme Court is asked to decide the issue of Hayes' status, but Daniels withdraws his objection after Chief of Staff Tom Lennox produces evidence of Daniels and his aide conspiring to manufacture evidence against Hayes. Palmer retains executive authority, then orders the attack anyway. It should be noted that there are 15 cabinet positions, not 14, and National Security Advisor is not among them. Therefore, Hayes wouldn't have had a vote anyway. Also, there appear to be several military advisors in the room, likely the joint chiefs of staff, who would not have a vote either. However, Palmer later succumbs to his injuries during a live press conference, and Daniels is installed as Acting President, again.
- Commander in Chief (2005):
- The President, Teddy Bridges, suffers from a severe brain hemorrhage and lapses into a coma. His female Vice President, Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis), an independent, is strongly pressured by the President's senior staff and political allies to resign from office. However, she instead chooses to await the outcome of the President's condition. When the President comes out of his coma and himself urges her to resign, she respectfully declines, explaining that the voters entrusted her with the Vice Presidency, and she intends to carry out its duties fully. The President dies shortly thereafter and she assumes the office of President of the United States, becoming the first woman ever to do so.
- Later in the season, President Allen's chosen Vice President resigns and then she requires emergency surgery. The Speaker of the House, next in line, is her political enemy, Republican House Speaker Nathan Templeton (Donald Sutherland); he chooses to resign his House position and accept the temporary acting presidency under the 25th Amendment, and uses his one day in office to take an action that Allen would never have countenanced. When she resumes office, she is angered at what she considers his irresponsibility, and more determined than ever to defeat him in the coming election. (The series was canceled before the election would have occurred.) The series erred, however, by making the explicit statement that Templeton, while resigning from the House and losing his voting privileges, would retain the title of Speaker. While the constitution does not strictly require a voting member of the House to serve as Speaker, the succession act does mandate resignation from both the House and as Speaker.
- In the CBS series Jericho, nuclear bombs have destroyed many major cities in the United States including Washington DC. In the episode "Black Jack," it is revealed that six people have laid claim to the Presidency, each with a base in a "new capital city" unaffected by the attacks. These cities, as seen on a map and in newspaper articles, are Rome, New York; Montgomery, Alabama; Columbus, Ohio; San Antonio, Texas; Cheyenne, Wyoming; and Sacramento, California. It is mentioned that fictional Secretary of Health and Human Services Charles would be next in line, suggesting that all those above him or her on the list are dead or incapacitated. However, "five other guys believe that the attacks have changed the rules," including fictional Senators Morrisette (OR), Tomarchio (WY), and Snowden (AL).
- In Prison Break, season two, episode one, the Vice President (a key protagonist in a conspiracy plot) is sworn in following the death of the President.
- Seven Days: In the pilot, the President and Vice President are both killed in a terrorist attack on the White House. On his way to be sworn in as President, the Speaker of the House is also killed. Using time-travel technology, the hero is able to go back in time one week and prevent the attack.
- The West Wing
- In the first episode of the second season, President Bartlet is incapacitated after being shot during an assassination attempt. While the VP believes he should act as President, Chief of Staff Leo McGarry states that without a letter from Bartlet stating the incapacity, no one has the right to claim authority. The Cabinet does not invoke the 25th amendment and the President recovers soon enough to prevent a constitutional crisis.
- During episodes 4.23–5.02 (2003): In the 4th season episode ofThe West Wing, titled "Commencement", the President's daughter is presumably kidnapped by terrorists. Feeling he is incapable of acting impartially or in the national interest and wishing to diminish the kidnappers' leverage, President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) invoked the 25th Amendment to remove himself from office. Due to a scandal leading to the Vice President's resignation prior to this episode, powers were transferred to the Speaker of the House, Glen Allen Walken (John Goodman), who as a conservative Republican is the ideological polar opposite of the President. There is further controversy as Walken threatens to select a new Vice President himself, stating that is is dangerous to leave the position vacant whilst a man of his own questionable health is President. It is not clear if an acting President has the right to choose a new Vice President. Early in the following season Bartlet resumed the powers of the presidency by notifying the Congressional leaders as provided in the Amendment. The resigned Vice President was later replaced under the 25th by Bob Russell.
- In the last season of The West Wing, Democratic vice presidential nominee Leo McGarry dies on Election Day, and it is revealed in the final episode that President Santos intends to nominate Pennsylvania Gov. Eric Baker for the Vice Presidency under the 25th Amendment rather than submit him to the Electoral College in place of McGarry.