If the unthinkable happens on Tuesday night and the Capitol is destroyed in the type of scenario that only occurs in a Michael Bay movie, Anthony Foxx will be the leader who rebuilds a shattered country.
Foxx, the transportation secretary, will be the designated survivor for Tuesday’s State of the Union address. So on a night when virtually all of the United States’ political leadership will cluster in the chamber of the House of Representatives, the former mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, will stay far away from the Capitol building.
The tradition of a designated survivor dates back to the Cold War, when there were fears that a surprise Soviet nuclear attack could decapitate the government and leave the United States vulnerable to a Russian invasion. But though the Soviet Union is long gone, the practice has endured, becoming even more intense in the post-9/11 era.
The designated survivor is treated almost like the president for the night, with full Secret Service protection and a military aide carrying a briefcase with the codes to launch nuclear weapons following him around. The position is often held by a Cabinet member who ranks lower in the hierarchy; it’s more often the secretary of energy than the treasury secretary. The designated survivor also must be constitutionally eligible to be president, which means Sally Jewell, the British-born secretary of the interior, will never get the job.
But holding the title means Foxx will miss out on his second State of the Union address while in the Cabinet. He was confirmed to run the Department of Transportation in June 2013. His predecessor as designated survivor, Ernest Moniz, the lavishly coiffured energy secretary, can finally appear on Capitol Hill and enjoy the pageantry after missing his first State of the Union in 2014.
If an alien spaceship shoots deadly laser beams down on Washington, D.C., à la Independence Day, or a volcano suddenly emerges from deep within the Earth and spews out waves of molten lava on the Capitol, at 44 Foxx will be the third youngest president to take office, the first North Carolina native in the White House since Andrew Johnson, and the second African-American to hold office. And if not, he’ll at least get the experience of knowing what it’s like to be president for day …only without the power and the fringe benefits.