Doing Bunker Duty at the State of the Union

Since the nuclear era, one Cabinet member has been designated to hide and lead the nation in the event that America's most powerful politicians are all wiped out during the State of the Union address. UPDATE

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Terry Ashe/ TIME & LIFE Images

Pres Ronald Reagan during his State of the Union Address, February 1, 1986.

Later tonight we’ll find out whom the White House picked as the designated successor to President Obama.  Since the dawn of the nuclear era, one cabinet officer has been singled out to miss the pageantry of the State of the Union (SOTU) address, and instead is dispatched to an undisclosed location in the event that if something catastrophic happens, a government leader will survive to lead the country.

TIME talked to some cabinet officers from previous administrations about their experience sitting out the big game for such a nerve-racking cause. It turns out that just because the location was undisclosed didn’t mean it was always secure, or even particularly fancy. And like much in Washington, things became more serious after 9/11.

A few days before President Bill Clinton’s final SOTU address, then Secretary of Energy, Bill Richardson, got a call from Chief of Staff John Podesta joking that the president didn’t want him to come to the speech.  Someone from a security team later informed him that he needed to be in a location near Washington, so he and his wife drove themselves, accompanied by security, to the home of close friends in Sherwood, Maryland where they dined on home-cooked crab cakes and watched the speech.  “It caused quite a commotion in the small town neighborhood,” he recalls.

Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy got a call from Chief of Staff Mack McLarty at about 2:30 in the afternoon the day of the speech.  The Secret Service picked him up at his office and asked him where he wanted to go.  Since he was leaving town early the next morning he decided to ask them to take him home to his townhouse in Silver Spring, Maryland. About 7 or 8 agents joined the then-single Espy in his basement and dined on delivery pizza while they watched the SOTU.  About 30 minutes after the speech, one of the men got a message in his earpiece and said, “POTUS is secure” and they left.  Espy’s only regret was inconveniencing his neighbors who had to produce I.D.’s to get into their parking spaces.

Donna Shalala, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, decided not to spend any taxpayer money when she was President Clinton’s designee in 1996.  She asked if she could just go over to the White House to wait it out and watch the speech.  She took her top staff along with her and they ate pizza in the Roosevelt Room and watched the speech. Shalala called it an “awesome responsibility” that was both fun and serious.  Shalala decided to try out the president’s chair in the Oval Office, and found that “it fit.”  She waited for President Clinton to return and he said something like, “this is the hand off” and high-fived her.

In 2008 Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne got the word from Chief of Staff Josh Bolton that he was the designee.  “I was one of those post-9/11 members.  Literally the world had changed…You take it extremely seriously because the only reason you would ever be utilized in that situation would be if there had just been a terrible calamity that evening at the Capitol.  Knowing, if that were the case what would transpire, is a very sobering thought.”

He recalls, “I went to an undisclosed bunker.  I went alone.  I had a detail with me.  You have an entire team that welcomes you.  There are some briefings going on where you’re brought up to speed on where there may be areas of interest around the globe.  We had dinner.  It’s comfortable and spartan.  You watch the SOTU and remain there until you are notified that POTUS is now safely back in the residence.”

Kempthorne said the experience was “very much part of the world of Tom Clancy.”

When it was his turn in 2006, Veteran Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson remembers a beautiful steak dinner prepared by the White House staff.  The overriding memory of that night was that it was an honor and an awesome obligation.  “You are confronted with the enormity of that responsibility…  It was only for a few hours, but I couldn’t wait for that call to come that said the president was safe back at the White House.”

UPDATE: According to TIME’s Michael Scherer, Energy Secretary Steven Chu will be doing bunker duty tonight.